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The green fairy's out of the bottle

September 12, 2008|Jessica Gelt | Times Staff Writer

The LEGENDARY green beverage known as absinthe was once forbidden fruit in the U.S., enjoyed only by those swigging from a smuggled bottle.

Now that absinthe has been legal here for nearly a year and a half, it has lost its outlaw luster but gained a new following. As a result, a slew of bars and clubs in Southern California are serving up the "green fairy," using the same intricate rituals and delicate glasses and spoons once used to purvey the liquor to bohemian vanguards -- Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh, among them -- who elevated its consumption to an art form.

One of the most lush and authentically Parisian approaches takes place during "L'Heure vert" or "the green hour" at Bar Noir in the Kelly Wearstler-designed boutique hotel Maison 140 in Beverly Hills. Between 5 and 7 each evening, the bar sets up a French absinthe fountain. It looks like a tiny, ornate water cooler made from hand-blown glass and is perched atop a plated-brass stand carved to look like a pensive, toga-wrapped maiden. When one of four spigots is turned on, ice water dribbles onto a sugar cube placed on a perforated spoon, which is laid on top of a glass containing about two fingers of absinthe.

As the sugar and water dissolve, the clear absinthe swirls with delicate clouds, creating an effect known as "louche." Also available is a flashier "bohemian-style" option, which involves an absinthe-soaked sugar cube being set on fire and dissolving through a spoon into a glass of the black licorice-tasting beverage.

"Whatever is forbidden is a lot more interesting," says Maison 140's general manager Marie-Helene Morowati. "It has such a wide appeal, and it's so mysterious."

Part of absinthe's mystery comes from the long-standing assertion that a chemical known as thujone, found in wormwood (one of absinthe's main ingredients), can cause a hallucinatory effect. Absinthe had been banned in the U.S. since 1912; now, for it to be legal, it has to meet the FDA's "thujone-free" standards, a hurdle that led to a discussion over whether absinthe sold in the U.S. is authentic.

"It's not the real deal," says Wendell Green, who manages the Tropicana bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt, which serves absinthe with ice and water. "I don't know if you've ever drunk the real thing -- it knocks you down like the drug that it is."

Not so, says T.A. Breaux, master distiller for Viridian Spirits, which makes the popular Lucid absinthe; it, along with competing brand Le Tourment Vert, dominates the L.A. market. "How much thujone is contained by any absinthe, old or new, is far too small to be relevant. Even if there were no regulations on thujone content in place, it would make no difference to the imbiber."

Debating absinthe's narcotic-or-not effects has done little to dampen the public's eagerness to try the drink.

"Everybody's in the mode where they're trying to bring back classic cocktails, and absinthe is right up there," says Emily Maclure, the general manager of Crown Bar in West Hollywood, which serves absinthe the old-fashioned way and in mixed cocktails.

Other places offering dances with the green fairy include STK in WeHo, where mixologist Pablo Moix shakes it up with hand-pressed grapes and basil; the Foundry on Melrose, which pulls out its fountain and strikes up a band on Thursday nights; the cavernous Edison in downtown L.A.; the upstairs bar at Ivan Kane's new Cafe Was; and SBE's Foxtail supper club in West Hollywood, which dusted off a classic recipe appropriately named "the Corpse Reviver."

This last cocktail best describes how many drinkers describe the buzz.

"I've had all-night benders on absinthe in Prague," says Ben Cornish, thoughtfully sipping an absinthe cocktail at Bar Noir. "I felt like my head was floating over the table at the end."


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