Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Redemption for a fairy

Misunderstood, green-tinted spirit making a comeback after being banned almost everywhere in the world

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Absinthe is the most misunderstood of all the spirits.

For one thing, is it actually a spirit, or a liqueur? Will it give you hallucinations? Will it make you crazy? Heck, is it even legal?

"It's one of those products where the myth has taken over," says Rodney Goodchild, the marketing and operations director for Okanagan Spirits, which produces Taboo absinthe. "People's understanding of absinthe is so wrong."

All that mythologizing is, in part, why distiller Tyler Schramm recently decided to make his own absinthe: Pemberton Distillery's The Devil's Club organic absinthe.

"Absinthe has such a unique history and reputation and we felt it would be a fun and creative spirit to distil," says Schramm.

"And it will only make you crazy if you want it to! Just kidding..."


Just to set the record straight: Absinthe is an anise-flavoured, green-tinted spirit that was first produced in Switzerland in the late 18th century. Nicknamed the "green fairy," it is traditionally enjoyed as an aperitif.

Absinthe is flavoured with a variety of botanicals that include anise, fennel and Artemisia absinthium, better known as grand wormwood. This bitter herb contains a psychoactive ingredient called thujone, which is said to cause hallucinations.

However, thujone is present only in minuscule amounts, far too small to have any real impact. In fact, you'll find more of the stuff in Parmesan cheese. Any hallucinations you experience are far more likely to be the result of absinthe's high alcohol content, which can be as high as 75 per cent and is why absinthe is typically diluted with water.

Right now you're probably thinking, well, that doesn't sound so bad. So where did absinthe's shady reputation come from?

Bad PR, mostly.

It started in the late 19th century when a pest called phylloxera devastated the vines in Europe, driving prices of what little wine was available through the roof. Naturally, people turned to other drinks, such as absinthe, which was especially popular among a group of artists and writers in Paris that included Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Think of them as the hipsters of the Belle Epoque.

This crowd attracted a fair bit of moral outrage, and so did the drink they enjoyed to remarkable excess. Then a couple of highly publicized scandals, including a multiple murder, were blamed on absinthe. And, in the early 20th century, when wine came back but couldn't find a market, well, it was easy to blame absinthe for that, too.

First one country, then another, banned absinthe until it was illegal almost everywhere in the world. It wasn't until 2007 that those bans were overturned.

But now the green fairy is legal again, and homegrown distillers can produce their own absinthe.

Okanagan Spirits introduced its Taboo absinthe six years ago. It is a sweet, delicate spirit, with subtle flavours of licorice and mint.

"It's our biggest-selling product in liquor boards across Canada," says Goodchild. "The people that understand it really enjoy it."

"As with all our spirits, our goal with the absinthe is to create a classic yet unique and modern spirit that can be enjoyed on its own terms," Schramm says.

"Most of our customers are wary to try the absinthe and then discover they absolutely love it."


-- For Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 18, 2013 c5

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