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Reviving a legend

A kinder, gentler absinthe makes a comeback

For those who have never heard of it before it is perhaps best summed up by Jack Hurtubise, bartender at the Savage Beagle.

"It's like 'absent' with a lisp."

But that description doesn't quite begin to sum up the strange mystique surrounding the legendary liqueur called absinthe.

Men may have reportedly murdered other men after drinking it. It may have inspired nineteenth century writers and painters to create great works of art and prose while high on it. And still others claimed to have wild hallucinations while under its influence, driving them to the verge of insanity.

In its hey day French insane asylums were packed with absinthe abusers who had succumbed to its potent charm.

The legend of absinthe is clouded in the mystique of its powerful effects on past drinkers, and now the drink is bouncing back in B.C. to tempt a new generation of swillers – but with significantly less kick.

Banned in many countries at the turn of the century, the drink of yore contained high amounts of a psychoactive neurotoxin called thujone, which comes from the wormwood plant. Thujone is chemically similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Although the wormwood plant had been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years (it was used to cure worms), it wasn't until the late 1700s that people discovered they could get high from it.

Its medicinal purposes soon took a backseat to its recreational uses and one forward-thinking doctor at that time decided to bottle that high.

As the drink reached the height of its popularity in European cafes at the end of the nineteenth century, its strange side effects were made even more notorious by its more famous fans, like Hemingway, Baudelaire, Picasso and Gauguin. Van Gogh was apparently drinking the stuff when he decided to cut off his ear.

Oscar Wilde, one of absinthe's more ardent admirers, described its effects as such:

"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second glass, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

It is claimed by some that there was up to 200 mg of thujone in the old fashioned drink.

"I don't believe that. It would be too bitter," said Vladimir Hill, whose uncle owns Hill's Absinth in the Czech Republic. (They spell the liqueur without the 'e' because this is the Czech translation of the spelling 'absinthe'.)

Hill estimates that the more famous absinthe swillers were only consuming about 20 mg of thujone and their wild times could not just be pinned on absinthe.

"All those poets were also experimenting with opium. They were drinking excessively and when you drink that much, of course you see hallucinations," he said.

Hill also said the old distillers were adding all kinds of ingredients to the drink to keep it green, like copper oxide, which is poisonous. That may account for some of the more mind-altering affects on the heavy drinkers.

The colour also accounts for its affectionate knick-name la fee verte , the Green Fairy.

The current Hill's recipe sold only in B.C. and Alberta, contains about 10 mg of the neurotoxin. It’s been available in B.C. since May and sells for $79 for a 750 ml bottle. It’s $45 for the same bottle in Alberta.

"It wasn't easy to bring it to Canada because of the misconceptions," said Hill.

Despite its bad reputation, the drink was never officially banned in Canada, as it was in the U.S. and European countries when it was deemed illegal in the years leading up to World War I.

At that time, drinking absinthe had become a custom steeped in ritual and tradition and its more regular fans owned specific absinthe paraphernalia, like absinthe spoons,

Although there are many different ways to prepare the potent liqueur, the most popular method, reminiscent of dark Bohemian cafes at the turn of the century, is burning sugar on a spoon before dipping it into a shot of the emerald liquid. Then an equal amount of water is poured into the glass to put out the flame.

"It's actually very pleasant," said Hill. "I can even drink it straight but I don't recommend that."

He cautions against drinking it neat for two reasons: the bitter taste that can be overwhelming without sugar or water to cut the flavour, and the high alcohol content.

"It's not something you should drink to excess. One shot is like a double cocktail," he said.

Hill's Absinth contains 70 per cent alcohol – 140 proof.

Because it has such a high alcohol content, Hill is confident the thujone in today's absinthe cannot possibly have the wild effects that the drink is famous for.

"The amount of alcohol prevents a significant amount of thujone going into the body. You would die from alcohol poisoning before you die from thujone," he said.

But by all accounts drinking absinthe is not the same as drinking any other strong booze.

"I have different dreams when I drink it – vivid dreams," said Hill.

Its current resurgence shows that people are interested in looking for another high or a different drunk. And Hill said it's mostly young people who are interested in testing out absinthe.

Current prices however, may prevent people from indulging in the drink too much. A glass of absinthe at the Savage Beagle rings in at $9.50.

Curiously, most people aren't indulging in the drink for its taste – it's bitter even with sugar and water and it burns on the way down. In fact, the word absinthe is derived from the Greek word absinthion , which means 'undrinkable'.

There is a distinct flavour of black licorice from the aniseed that is added but Hill said the modern recipe contains less aniseed than before, so that it can be mixed with other drinks to make different martini's as well as cocktails.

So if people aren't trying it for the taste, its comeback might have more to do with the fact that its legend still lives on.

Trying absinthe is like stepping back in time to a Parisian cafe.

It's making a comeback because people are trying to capture what Wilde was talking about, and what Van Gogh was thinking when he cut off his ear.

They are curious to see what all the fuss is about.

But modern drinkers shouldn't expect too much; it is unlikely that Canadian hospitals will be overflowing with absinthe addicts anytime soon.