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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'.)

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