OAKLAND — A local company is about to become the first in the state to legally produce and then sell absinthe, a green alcoholic spirit that carries its own air of mystery and subversion.

Absinthe was outlawed in the United States for nearly a century, but can now be legally made and sold under regulation by the federal government. Absinthe is not a hallucinogen, despite legend that it is, according to Bruce Olson, who co-owns Tree Spirits with his partner, Waterville Mayor Karen Heck.

Olson and Heck have created their first gallon or so of absinthe using a traditional recipe from 1800s France and their own apple-based alcohol, in keeping with their trademark of using all locally grown ingredients in their products.

Before the absinthe can be sold, the alcohol and its proposed label have to be approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which holds absinthe to a higher standard than other drinks.

The alcohol itself must not to have too much of the chemical thujone, a compound derived from wormwood that has been charged with being psychoactive.

Olson said he doesn’t expect problems with what he considers a rubber-stamp process to appease outdated concerns.

“Traditionally, none of these products are ever over the limit,” he said. “Probably, it’s never been a problem.”

Another test is visual. The product label must not “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects,” according to federal guidelines.

Olson’s label features a green fairy — a common symbol and nickname for absinthe — against a black background, but he would not release an image of it for publication until it has been approved by the feds. The label is more colorful than the staid labels of other absinthe competitors.

There are no separate state regulations for producing absinthe.

Olson and Heck hope to launch their product from their store after federal approval. They believe they’ll get the OK any time now on thujone levels, and then they plan to immediately mail in their product label, a review that could take up to 45 days. The absinthe could start being sold in two months.

Olson, sitting recently behind the bar at Tree Spirits in Oakland, dispensed absinthe in different stages of production. He held it in glass jars of various sizes and shapes as he described how apples and herbs are transformed into what may be the world’s most notorious alcohol.

A jar of raw apple spirit looks and smells like clear rubbing alcohol. But the smell changes significantly after it has been allowed to steep for 24 hours with three plants known among absinthe enthusiasts as the holy trinity — anise, fennel and the infamous wormwood, a much-maligned herb used predominately in absinthe production.

Once it has been distilled, the liquid is clear again, but the alcohol smell is significantly dampened, almost overtaken by the licorice-like aroma of the anise.

Three more herbs — a different variety of wormwood, lemon balm and hyssop, are added, steep and then filtered out. The smell, now more complex, is still reminiscent of licorice and the color is changed.

The first of two test batches came out tinted light green, while the second is darker, a so-called dead leaf green that Olson can’t explain.

“It’s not uncommon for absinthe to turn that color with time,” he said. “I don’t know why it turned that way immediately.”

Olson is thinking about how to tinker with the product to mellow out the taste, which he said is harsher than grape-based absinthe.

One option that he also uses on the company’s applejack is to age the spirit in an oak barrel, charred on the inside.

Spirits on the rise

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the culture of absinthe became widely associated with artists and writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh and French poet Charles Baudelaire, who were considered notorious for drinking absinthe.

Because many believed it to be a hallucinogen with addictive properties, it was a popular target for prohibitionists, who succeeded in having absinthe banned in the early 1900s in many countries, including the United States, France and Switzerland.

In the past 20 years, after science found absinthe to be no more dangerous than other alcohols, most of those hundred-year-old bans were reversed, creating a new marketing opportunity in a landscape that is besotted with more traditional alcoholic beverages. The U.S. ban started in 1912 and was lifted in 2007.

Somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of alcohol consumed in Maine is produced in the state, according to Elmer Alcott, an executive with Nappi Distributors, one of eight members of the Maine Beer and Wine Distributors Association.

Both Olson and Alcott said no one else in Maine is authorized to make absinthe for sale. Many stores have sold absinthe in Maine since the U.S. ban was lifted, but the product they sell is made out of state.

He said companies such as Tree Spirits are well-positioned to take advantage of two ongoing trends in Maine’s alcohol production industry.

Alcott said beer is losing market shares to wine and liquor across the nation.

“It’s the talk of the beer business, the fact that wine and spirits are on a growth track and that beer sales are on a decline,” Alcott said. “Spirits are on the rise.”

Part of the reason for the growth, he said, is that spirits manufacturers have been innovative in creating new and interesting products, including absinthe.

“You’ve got marshmallow vodka, whipped cream vodka, every kind of schnapps you can think of,” he said. “I think liquor is going to be the next growing niche.”

There’s a second trend that should also benefit Tree Spirits, he said.

While the beer industry as a whole is in decline, craft beers, produced by small, local breweries, is growing at a rate of about 20 percent a year. The trend toward locally produced alcohol has helped Nappi, which represents Maine brewers including D.L. Geary, Allagash, Baxter, Shipyard and Sebago, to gain on national brands such as Budweiser in Maine, he said.

That same trend should also benefit small local spirits producers, he said.

The rebellion culture

Absinthe has long been known for its culture of nonconformity.

But Olson said many people don’t realize that apple spirits have a long-standing culture of rebellion in New England.

When Maine outlawed alcohol, significantly before the national Prohibition movement that culminated with the national alcohol ban in 1920, home production of applejack continued illegally throughout the state.

“It was made everywhere,” Olson said. “Oldtimers around here will tell you that their father had a still in the basement.”

One appealing component of the applejack tradition was that it was cheap, made from the ubiquitous apple. Absinthe, on the other hand, is a high-end product.

Olson said the cheapest varieties, colored with artificial agents instead of herbs, retail at more than most other drinks.

“There’s no point in being under $50 a bottle, because even the crappy stuff with food coloring is going for more than that,” he said.

His price point will likely be above $75 per bottle, he said, and will be produced in small batches.

At 120-proof, absinthe is not meant to be drunk straight; instead, it is typically mixed with four parts of water for each part absinthe.

Olson said that not only takes some of the sting out of the cost, but it also capitalizes on a unique characteristic of absinthe — reminiscent of a parlor trick — that helps to set it apart.

When absinthe is ordered in a bar, it is often poured into a glass, which is then topped with a special utensil that spans the top, designed to hold a cube of sugar over the green-tinted liquid below.

As chilled water is poured over the sugar, it dissolves; when the solution mixes with the spirit, the oil content of the herbs becomes de-emulsified, giving the entire concoction a milky-green look.

That transformation, the louche, is part of what gives absinthe an appeal that has withstood the efforts of government regulators to eliminate it altogether.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
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