You have to be quick if you want to catch the green fairy, the mythic creature that supposedly appears to those who drink absinthe. When the liqueur is poured correctly, however, the green fairy will show herself, if only briefly, in the pale green swirls of liquid that form when the herbal-infused alcohol is mixed with cold water.
For nearly a century the green fairy didn’t appear — at least, not legally — in the United States and many other countries; absinthe was banned for what was believed to be the toxic effects of thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, one of the drink’s main ingredients.
Switzerland, for example, said to be the birthplace of absinthe, banned the libation. So did France, where absinthe was a regular cocktail in cafe society and where many artists and authors were said to have been inspired by its inebriating effects.
It was also said to have driven them crazy. That Vincent van Gogh ear-lopping incident? Absinthe, supposedly.
Levels of thujone in absinthe were proved negligible, however, and the drink reappeared in the U.S. in 2007, where it was served first in West Coast restaurants and absinthe bars, then in more urban areas such as New York City.
Around Aug. 1, absinthe first went on sale in Maine, and the drink turned up in local liquor shops, bars and restaurants. Some area bartenders didn’t waste much time ordering a bottle or two.
It’s an expensive drink, but barkeeps think absinthe’s mystique, unique color and preparation, as well as its intensity will draw fans and the curious.
“I like to serve a lot of traditional drinks here, and it was one of the first really popular cocktails,” said Abe Furth, the bartender and an owner of Woodman’s Bar & Grill in Orono.
Furth ordered absinthe as soon as he could. “I just wanted to add to the repertoire. It’s not very well-known yet, but I think it will be more popular as people start to see it. It’s definitely unique and I think people will see it as something different and exciting.”
Furth started carrying Pernod brand absinthe when it became available through his distributor, Burby & Bates in Orono.
Pernod is one of the oldest absinthe brands and one of hundreds being sold in the U.S. Only three brands, Pernod D’Absinthe, Grande and Lucid, are being sold in Maine, according to Michael Boardman, the assistant director of Maine’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. Pernod, which is 136 proof, goes for $74.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle. Grande, a whopping 138 proof, costs $67.99. The slightly weaker 124-proof Lucid goes for $61.99.
Murphy said Burby & Bates, which also has a retail shop in Orono, had been getting many calls about absinthe’s availability before Aug. 1. So far the store has sold about one case of each brand of absinthe and provided absinthe to four restaurants on its distribution list.
“People have been asking about it all year. We were getting a lot of questions,” Murphy said. “Sometimes it’s college kids [who buy it]. Sometimes it’s people in their 30s who haven’t been to Europe and haven’t had the opportunity to try it. Sometimes it’s foreign exchange students.”
Café Nouveau in Bangor also has a bottle of absinthe, but it hasn’t been a big seller so far.
“People are surprised and intrigued that we have it,” Café Nouveau bartender Josh Clement said recently. “No one’s actually ordered one from me yet.”
Windy Brown, who managed Bayside Liquors in Bar Harbor, said a few restaurants have ordered absinthe. The store hasn’t sold many bottles to individuals, but there’s a building interest in the drink.
“People are curious about it,” she said.
Furth first tried absinthe for himself several years ago when was given a bottle from France as a gift. The bottle came with a coupon for an absinthe spoon, which is slotted to make the traditional cocktail. He filled out the coupon, sent it back to France and the spoon arrived.
Recently, Furth used the spoon to demonstrate how the cocktail is created. First, he chilled a double-rocks-size glass with ice water. He dumped out the ice water and put 1-1½ ounces of bright green absinthe into the glass.
Then, he placed the spoon over the glass and put a sugar cube into the center of the spoon and poured cold water over the sugar. The water caused the sugar cube to break up and melt into the absinthe. The ratio of water to absinthe should be 3-to-1, Murphy said. Once the water hit the absinthe in the glass, the liquids started to swirl and curl together, almost fairylike. That swirling of liquids is traditionally called the louche.
The bright green liquid then turned pale and milky.
The taste? The licorice flavor is strong, to be sure, but it’s a clean feel in the mouth. There’s a hint of sugar but just enough to cut the sharp licorice flavor.
As for psychotropic side effects, no green fairies appeared to this drinker, although those with a low tolerance for alcohol will quickly feel the same effects as any highly potent drink.
“I had higher expectations, not that I wanted to be out of my mind or anything,” Furth said. “I drink it more for the flavor. I’m sure if you drank a bottle of it, you’d feel like you were hallucinating.”
Clement said he has noticed a difference from other cocktails.
“There’s definitely some other sensation going on there with the wormwood,” he said. “There was a weird lightheadedness associated with it.”
Furth charges $14 a glass for one absinthe cocktail, which means it’s unlikely young adults from campus will choose absinthe as their drink of choice. The strong flavor, too, will likely turn off many people who are used to sugary cocktails.
“It’s not going to be like a cosmopolitan or a mojito where it’s going to be the next big drink,” Furth said. “It takes a specific taste. People who like it will get it as a special drink for themselves.”