2028 South 9th Street

Feb 20, 2008 at 4:00 am
Oh poor, poor absinthe! For nearly a century it had been so unfairly marked with a scarlet letter, a capital "A," and outlawed by fear-mongering fun-haters since Prohibition. Even absinthe, the flower, gets a raw deal: Rather than symbolize gentleness like the plucky daisy or the folly and glee associated with red jasmine, absinthe stands for "separation and torment of love." Poor, poor absinthe.

Absinthe, the drink, still has an air of intrigue that surrounds its illicit past and tales of its supposed hallucinogenic effects. Especially popular among bohemian artists and poets in the 1800s, Oscar Wilde famously mused, "What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?"

Cory Hammerstone's heard the lore, too, and she's seen some of the effects firsthand. She says that patrons mostly get into trouble when absinthe is taken as a shot — "terrible!" — she's seen immediate vomiting. But she's also heard how people enjoy the "different kind of drunk feeling" absinthe provides and how they liken it to being stoned.

Hammerstone's in Soulard has been carrying absinthe since the end of last year, when Cory Hammerstone, the daughter of owners Denny and Lyn — who are here throwing back beers, making owning a restaurant and bar look like the best job ever — heard the alcohol came back on the market. There's a slate board suspended over the bar — tonight it's hawking Tommy Bahama rum and $3 bloody marys — and whenever absinthe is featured on it, sales of the 124-proof drink are swift. After Cory ordered the first bottle of Lucid Absinthe Supérieure back in December, the bar sold out of it within days. (Over the tinkling sounds of Chopin's "Nocturne in B-flat Minor," Lucid's Web site claims it's "the first true, Grande Wormwood-based Absinthe of its type since before prohibition.")

Hammerstone's doesn't make absinthe the traditional way — that is, going through an elaborate ritual involving decanters, spigots, an aperitif glass, absinthe spoon and sugar cube. Instead they take a shot of Lucid, combine it with a half-shot of simple syrup and chill it over ice and water. They call it the Toulouse-Lautrec, in honor of the diminutive, cabaret-loving French artist known to heartily indulge in it. In the six-ounce glass, the color resembles liquefied opals, Lucid's grass-green color lending it a faint, iridescent sheen.

Its smell is overwhelmingly anise, but its taste is surprisingly sweet and refreshing. The simple syrup manages to mellow the black-licorice taste that tends to hang around in drinks like ouzo and sambuca, and the result is an atypical pleasure.

The Park Avenue Jazz band is starting their set. We get another round of drinks, a Toulouse-Lautrec among them. Trish, who'll sing with the band later on in the night, walks around with a huge bag of bite-size chocolates, like the inverse of a trick-or-treater, encouraging everyone to take as much candy as they want. "Now no one can say they didn't get chocolate for Valentine's Day!" she enthuses. We select and unwrap a couple Kit Kats: Like the absinthe — and this whole night — it's a sweet, unexpected treat.

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