This past Friday I stuck out the three hour wait and picked up four bottles of the first legal batch of absinthe produced in the United States in nearly 100 years. The parking lot at St. George's Spirits was sliced by a line of a few hundred people. I saw my plumber there, along with a guy who used to work for me, a woman who works at Speisekammer, and a handful of other familiar faces from around the East Bay.
The wait began a few weeks ago when a friend forwarded me a link to this New York Times article on absinthe's comeback. Laboring under the delusion that absinthe was still illegal in the states, I was unaware that two european brands (Kubler & Lucid) had been on sell for months. With the ban lifted, and after years of experimentation, the folks at St. George's Distillery in Alameda would be bringing theirs to market on December 21 - which just happens to be my birthday.
I'd had some serviceable absinthe at a party in New York during the summer of 1997, listened a year later as a friend described being served homemade absinthe at a party in Berkeley ("My senses all stopped working sequentially, like lights going off on the bridge during an attack on the Star Ship Enterprise..."), and with both of these things in mind I passed on some that a friend had "scored" online. Still, I was intrigued and I was not the only one.
The San Francisco Chronicle published an article on St. George's absinthe efforts. Googling turned up blog posts, announcements on Yelp!, and a thread over at the Republic of Absinthe forums.
So, just before lunch I made the short trip from my employer's offices on the island of Alameda, over to St. George's Spirits. My first inkling of what I had gotten myself into came as I pulled into the parking lot. A line of 200 to 300 people snaked out from the door, through the lot, and out through the gate. Through the gate.
The line moved five people at a time
As people came out with multiple 6-bottle cases, we learned there was no bottle limit. Of the 3,000 or so bottles that had been released in this batch, only 1600 were available. The line gasped audibly as a guy came out with a dolly-load of cases. Spirits were bolstered when people came out with single bottles wrapped in popcorn bags. The line constantly assured itself that the staff would let us know if there was no hope, that a limit might be imposed as supplies dwindled. The length of the line seemed to always be right around two hundred people.
We wondered what the street value of a bottle would be by the end of the week as women dressed in militaristic uniforms (with absinthe spoons in their pockets) came out to pour the line hot chocolate. While the Bay Area Bites blogger who posted on the release didn't flash their press credential, the line seethed at a woman who did flamboyantly flash hers. This prompted a group of guys near the front of the line to shout that they were part of the Photoshop development team, and that a swap for software was not out of the question.
Entirely Worth It
We drank some with our friend Jenny that night, dropping water into our glasses one drop at a time. It was thicker than we'd expected, very complex tasting. Each drop trailed oily legs through the glass. No one claimed hallucinations, though the flames in our fireplace seemed brighter than usual to me. I also dreamt that I could see through the blanket I'd pulled over my head.