Behind the Green Door

Kreme and Jett court madness, drunkenness and death runnin' after absinthe's La Fée Verte.

"I'd probably want to slap them," she tells me, smoking and talking quickly. "People think it's like a drug and is going to totally fuck 'em up. They see these movies like Eurotrip, and they do things like set the sugar cubes on fire. The problem is, most people don't do their research. It was probably in 2001 that I first heard about absinthe, and I happened to stumble onto the best Web sites for it online with tons of information, like FeeVerte.net and Oxygenee.com."

Abby claims to have never had any secondary effects from drinking absinthe. Basically, she just gets plastered. That's cool. But why her obsession with it if all she does is get tight?

"Because it tastes so good!" she enthuses. "It's got such amazing flavors, and there's so much variation that I would think most people would come back for that alone. But I guess some people feel different drinking it because it's taboo. Or because Marilyn Manson drinks it."

The romance of ritual: Cold water dripped slowly over sugar cubes into absinthe makes connoisseurs coo.
Peter Scanlon
The romance of ritual: Cold water dripped slowly over sugar cubes into absinthe makes connoisseurs coo.
The poets' potion: bottles of true Spanish absinthe.
Peter Scanlon
The poets' potion: bottles of true Spanish absinthe.

When I accuse her of doing something similar, of drinking absinthe in part because she digs poets like Rimbaud, she disagrees, saying her love for absinthe came first. However, I can't help but see some parallels to the Sadiscoites. Maybe they can't distinguish anise from fennel like Abby can, but then I'm not so sure that Ernest Dowson or Paul Verlaine would have been able to, either. The poets liked the way it tasted, but they also liked the effect it had on them, which they regarded differently from that of other alcoholic drinks.

Like many wormwood-heads, Abby makes a fetish of collecting absinthe-related items, everything from antique glasses and slotted spoons to vintage saucers placed under absinthe glasses (pre-priced in francs) and a beautiful reproduction of an absinthe water fountain with four small spigots, used to drip ice-cold water over the sugar cubes and into the absinthe glasses. She even has these sugar-grilles in the shape of an elephant or a man's face, which are used for the same purpose as the slotted spoons.

But Abby's collection is dwarfed by that of Betina Wittels, whose rambling Tucson abode is filled with rare and unusual absinthiana. Wittels is the co-author of Absinthe, Sip of Seduction (edited by Ted Breaux), a modern guide to appreciating La Fée Verte. Wittels deals in absinthiana through her Web site www.allthingsabsinthe.com, and travels frequently in Europe and elsewhere on the hunt for, well, all things absinthe. She appeared on the Food Network's Thirsty Traveler TV show during a special episode on absinthe. Some of her rarer acquisitions include an absinthe spoon owned by Toulouse-Lautrec, Eiffel Tower spoons in the shape of the French landmark, antique glass "topettes" used to measure and pour absinthe, and a rare green, glow-in-the-dark absinthe glass containing uranium.

When I interviewed Wittels, she'd just returned from France, a bunch of antiques in tow.

"The market for absinthe antiques has snowballed," she explained. "I don't want to say what I buy things for and then sell, but I can tell you what the retail prices are. The antique spoons, anywhere from $500 to $2,000 each. Five years ago, I could get a fountain and sell it for maybe $1,000 to $1,500. Now there's nothing decent and in good condition for less than $2,500."

For Wittels, there's a direct correlation between the antique market and absinthe drinking because people tend to use what they buy.

"A big part of absinthe is the ritual involved in making the drink. They're all caught up in that era where people savored the moment in the cafes and enjoyed a drink, enjoyed putting it together, pouring the water over the sugar and into the glass."

Hence the rise of an entire industry dedicated to dealing in and reproducing the accouterments of absinthe drinking.

What the trade in these objects indicates is that people are attempting to buy not only a piece of the history of absinthe, but the mystique surrounding it. True, absinthe's continuing illegality in the United States no doubt enhances its mystique and the myths surrounding the green muse. Absinthe could only be legalized if the FDA were lobbied and convinced that this green liquor is just another alcoholic beverage, like a souped-up bourbon or scotch. But who wants absinthe to be just another drink? Not me. Not the party people at Sadisco. Not even Abby.

"I prefer it this way, that it's restricted," she confides, as we sit in her green room, louched glasses of absinthe before us. "If it were legal, there would be all these frat boys and sorority girls lining up, setting their sugar cubes on fire. It would completely ruin this lovely, dignified beverage and turn it into flaming Dr Peppers. I'd hate that."

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