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THAT FIRST SIP. Betina Wittels is passionate about a certain green and glorious liqueur. She's whirling around her home as we talk by phone, feverishly preparing to go abroad to chase after her infatuation with the elixir.

Wittels has written a guidebook, Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, along with Robert Hermesch, a Boston youth counselor and embracer of relaxation as an art form, and T.A. Breaux, a New Orleans scientist and founder of the Société International d'Absinthe. Wittels herself is a psychotherapist in practice for 27 years in Tucson. She's also introduced antique absinthe paraphernalia to exalt the lore of the liquid to people in this country, where it's still an illegal substance.

"It was first banned in 1915 in Europe. Some guy got drunk on absinthe and killed his wife and kids. But really, it was banned because it was competing with wine growers who were suffering from a devastating draught that year," explains Wittels.

Absinthe was prohibited throughout much of the Western world until 1993. Imposters snuck into the market appearing in the form of herbal wines, aperitifs, liquers d'anis and eventually pastis. Absenté--kind of a play on the word "absentee"--is a fake, yet it still costs $30 to $40 a bottle. Vintage potions of the real thing fetch $2,000 to $4,000 a bottle.

Absinthe is a potent punch, ranging from 55-75 percent in alcoholic strength and up to 150 proof. It's distilled from a meadow of herbs and has an anise-like flavor. Although each distiller holds the secret to its recipe, true admixtures always include Artemisia absinthium--Grand Wormwood--a plant used for centuries as a flea and moth repellent, digestive aid, cure for malaria and even as a medicine to ease menstrual cramps. Some researchers claim that drinking absinthe is like removing the brakes on our brain's nerve impulses. It makes the imbiber loopy, basically. Everything is clear and bright. The impossible becomes a cinch.

"Don't laugh, but two people I know have seen the green fairy," admits Wittels of the shadowy figure that has accompanied the lore and the lure of the potion. "I haven't seen her myself, but very mischievous, playful things have happened to me while drinking absinthe."

Like what?

"Well, in France a few years ago, I was looking for the famous absinthe cat poster. I go to this big antiques market, the Hippodrome in Paris. This little old lady was selling furniture and we talked about the poster. She sold me an engraving of one by Jean Beraud. It's worth thousands. She sold it to me for $77."

Seems that Wittels has experienced a bit more than an exciting flea-market bargain. In her introduction to the book, she divulges the circumstances surrounding her very first, delectable sip. She says her life has never been the same since imbibing it, sitting atop a dusty bar stool in a pink-walled café in Barcelona at 4 a.m.

Wittels discovered both the history and the passion that sprung from absinthe culture--despite its 78-year prohibition. Famous imbibers were fueled by its qualities, certain that the green fairy performed her muse-like job to perfection. From Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Degas and Van Gogh to Wilde and Hemingway and, more recently, Marilyn Manson and Johnny Depp, absinthe's clutch on their creative powers has been professed.

"It's not like acid or heroin," explains Wittels. "It's not addicting. Think of it more like chocolate--there's passion around it. But also think of it as something people tell you isn't good for you."

She points to the rituals surrounding its consumption as paramount, and it's what has Wittels traipsing from Switzerland to Spain and points in between to collect the paraphernalia related to the green-hued drink.

"The greatest era for absinthe was the Belle Epoch with all the spoons, saucers, match strikers, posters and dripping fountains. All this now costs in the thousands," says the creator of the Web site, www.allthingsabsinthe.com.

"You need a special slotted spoon to drink it. A sugar cube rests on top of it, and you dribble ice-cold water over the sugar into the shot of absinthe."

It should then immediately begin to turn into a white, sage or pearly-gray color--an alchemy of flavors that exceeds its individual ingredients.

Other methods to the so-called madness are detailed in Wittels' book aside from this classic French preparation. The contemporary Czech burning spoon method is popular. An absinthe-doused spoonful of sugar is set afire momentarily, after which the sugared spoon is used to stir the liquor with water and ice. There's the German vacuum inhalation method--you'll need a sturdy tumbler for the requisite banging on the table--where inside the glass are fumes from a quickly extinguished flame of fire green elixir. Inhaling is essential.

Wittels sees the allure of absinthe as cult-like but not a cult.

"My prediction is there will be a resurgence of antiques relating to absinthe. It's a trend, like the slow food moment, to savor the moment. Absinthe isn't a drink to get smashed on. Instead, all the senses--visual and kinesthetic--are heightened. It's a magical, interesting drink. I think it could be as famous as Absolut vodka."

Absinthe bars are opening their doors all over, says Wittels. "There's even one in the (United) States, where it's still illegal. There's a bar opening in Thailand. And I just outfitted one in Manila."

Wittels is gaining a reputation for her ability to nose out absinthe accoutrements and re-sell them to collectors. But she's quick to qualify a profile of her customers.

"They're not slimy alcoholics. Some of them just want to see the green fairy."

Betina Wittels reads from Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, demonstrates drinking rituals and offers an absinthe star spoon and other absinthiana at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, at Reader's Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd.

The reading is free. Call 319-7887 for details.

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