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Dispiriting

How to capitalize on a European drinking craze when the key ingredient is illegal here?

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The gaunt, hollow-eyed look of heroin chic, held up as the harrowing mark of late-millennial decline, is, in fact, nothing new. At the end of the last century, Paris was distinguished by "absinthe chic," its subjects equally emaciated and arguably more artfully portrayed. Manet, Degas, Picasso, and Van Gogh all painted absinthe drinkers, usually angular figures hanging over wooden chair backs in lonely cafés.

A century later, the drink has made a huge comeback in Europe and London, where part of the rage is the ritual, in which ice water is dripped over sugar cubes on a latticed spoon balanced atop a glass. As the sugar water dissolves in the drink, the anise-flavored spirit turns an opaline green.

New Yorkers will get a taste as of November 1, when Michel Roux, the mixology mastermind behind Absolut vodka, Grand Marnier liqueur, and other spirits, begins importing the intoxicant to the United States. Actually, it's not absinthe that's coming but a product Roux calls Absente -- and the difference is crucial. Around 1915, absinthe was outlawed in most Western European countries and the U.S. because it was thought to cause convulsions and insanity. Igniting the absinthe-abstinence movement was the 1905 story of a Swiss laborer who got drunk on absinthe and shot his whole family to death. But it turns out he had drunk a lot of other cheap liquor that day, too. "The worst thing for you is badly distilled alcohol," says Roux. "There's nothing dangerous about absinthe. It was unfairly banned."

Absinthe contains wormwood, which chemically resembles cannabis and contains the mild hallucinogen thujone. U.S. regulations permit only tiny amounts of thujone in alcohol (ten parts per million). So in concocting Absente, Roux has replaced the outlawed wormwood with its easier-on-the-thujone cousin, southernwood, or southern wormwood, known as "petite absinthe" in France. It can still give you a buzz, Roux insists, especially when sweetened (he claims sugar boosts the thujone effect). Or perhaps the Absente high is altogether less exotic -- the spirit, after all, is already 110 proof.


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