Alameda distiller helps make absinthe legitimate again

It was the drink of choice for 19th century painters, poets and writers.

Vincent van Gogh sliced off his ear while sipping it, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso painted it, French poet Paul Verlaine cursed it as he lay dying in his bed.

For nearly 100 years, the United States and many other nations banned it.

Absinthe. “It leads straight to the madhouse or the courthouse,” declared Henri Schmidt, a French druggist urging his own countrymen to outlaw the green liquid in the early 1900s, which they did.

Now it seems that no one can remember exactly why it was prohibited. Some say it was the chemical thujone found in the herb wormwood, used to make absinthe, that affects the brain. Others say it was a plot by the wine industry to put the popular spirit out of business. And there are those who believe it was a case of baseless hysteria, not unlike “Reefer Madness,” the 1936 propaganda film about marijuana.

Earlier this year, a lone Washington, D.C., lawyer took on the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in an attempt to lift the ban. After some legal wrangling, the agency agreed – with some limits.

Last week, St. George Spirits of Alameda received the news that, after seven applications, the federal agency had approved its label, the final obstacle before going to market. On Monday, the small artisan distillery sold its token first bottle, becoming the only American company since 1912 to sell absinthe in the United States. Then the staff took a moment to celebrate.