Absinthe: The return of the green fairy
Banned for over a century in its Alpine heartland until recently, absinthe is back with a bang — a small band of Swiss and French distilleries are driving a renaissance for this much-misunderstood, herb-infused spirit
As I sip a cold glass of absinthe, I can't help but think my surroundings are a little incongruous. The sun-dappled forest floor is thick with beech leaves. I'm standing at Fontaine à Louis, a spring-fed woodland fountain in the region where the drink originated, the Swiss Jura, and Yann Klauser, head of the local absinthe museum, Maison de l'Absinthe, is adding water from the spring to his own shot. It was at tree-shrouded springs like this, he tells me, that absinthe was covertly sipped during the century-long ban.
I almost expect the police to jump out and arrest us for illicit drinking, but thankfully, as of 2008 in Switzerland (2011 in France) this is all above board. Nevertheless, absinthe is still a drink that strikes fear into the heart of many a spirit lover. During the heady days of La Belle Epoque, La Fée Verte ('The Green Fairy') acquired a reputation as the mind-bending tipple of choice for Van Gogh, Zola, Rimbaud, Toulouse-Lautrec and a host of other bohemian artists and writers active in Paris. And, while it's never been banned in the UK, it's always been something of a daring novelty — an edgy ingredient in cocktails like the Sazerac and Corpse Reviver No 2, or a noxious, flaming shot knocked back by fearless stag-do hellraisers.
However, this trip, to absinthe's heartland on the French-Swiss border, has convinced me that absinthe's notoriety is undeserved. It's here you find the good stuff: a refreshing spirit distilled with up to 10 botanicals — including aniseed, mint and melissa — to disguise the bitter taste of key ingredient wormwood ('absinthe' in French).
With an alcohol content typically ranging from 50% to 60%, absinthe isn't for the faint-hearted, but in moderation it can be enjoyed just like any other spirit. Traditionally, it's served à la Parisienne — an elaborate ritual centred around an absinthe fountain (a large, ornate jar with spigots, resting on stand).
From this, ice-cold water is dripped through a sugar lump perched on a slotted spoon lying on the rim of a glass of absinthe. The moment the water is added the spirit turns cloudy, like pastis.
Although seldom encountered in the region's watering holes, the sugar-and-spoon ceremony is a big part of the experience at the bars and tasting rooms of local absinthe distilleries. Yet for all the industry's fondness for nostalgia, it's also looking to the future, and is enjoying a renaissance not unlike the gin revolution in the UK. Dozens of small, family-run distilleries are blending their botanicals in the traditional absinthe heartlands of Switzerland and France.
My journey begins in Pontarlier, a laid-back town at the foot of the Jura Mountains in eastern France. Its ties with absinthe are strong, and by all accounts the town was once awash with the stuff. By the end of the 19th century, there were 25 distilleries in and around Pontarlier producing absinthe, providing a living for around 3,000 of the town's 8,000-odd inhabitants. Today, at the Pontarlier Museum, a whole floor is given over to the drink. According to the museum's cultural liaison officer Elise Berthelot, absinthe's popularity didn't go down well with the wine trade, especially as the local vineyards were suffering from an insect blight that was pushing prices up. Absinthe's consumption was soon being vigorously campaigned against by the church and the authorities. Chilling posters from this time — also on display — made it clear that the 'Green Fairy' would spell certain doom for all who dared to consume it.
"The 'dangerous' ingredient was thought to be the thujone [a toxic compound] in the wormwood plant. Their 'proof' was found by injecting it into mice's brains; however, this obviously isn't how humans consume it," explains Elise, rolling her eyes. As I explore the exhibition I get to see some of these posters for myself — each one promising absinthe drinkers madness, if not death — and I can certainly see how absinthe's reputation would have been tarnished by this degree of propaganda.
When, in 1904, a Swiss labourer killed his wife and family after drinking absinthe, it was the last straw. Switzerland banned it and over the next decade many other European countries followed suit, including France. While most absinthe distilleries were forced to close, others — such as Distillerie Guy, in Pontarlier (run by the Guy family for five generations since 1890) — survived by diversifying into other aniseed-flavoured aperitifs such as anisette and pastis. One of the drinks Distillerie Guy conjured up in the wake of the absinthe ban was Le Vert Sapin, a spirit made with pine (the French, it seems, can make booze out of anything). These days, the family is happily bringing absinthe back to life at its buzzing distillery. Its copper stills stand proudly on show, admired by the numerous visitors who pass them on their way into the tasting room for a sample.
Over lunch with Fabrice Hérard, who heads up the French part of the Route de l'Absinthe (a Franco-Swiss absinthe tourist route), we tuck into a steak flambéed in the spirit, served in a deliciously aromatic absinthe sauce. As we chat about the different approaches of distillers either side of the border, Fabrice says he finds it interesting that the French, for all their reputed natural rebelliousness, simply accepted the ban, whereas the Swiss — often typecast as orderly and rule-driven — carried on in secret in absinthe's Val de Travers heartland. If they hadn't, the recipes and production methods could easily have been lost over time.
Val de Travers is a wide, green valley, peppered with villages whose histories are bound to absinthe and its clandestine production and consumption. Yann Klauser, head of Maison de l'Absinthe, in the village of Môtiers, meets me in the museum's bar. Lines of shelves showcase bottles from local distilleries, and the sleek modernity of the bar makes quite a contrast to the quaint Swiss village outside.
It's too early for a drink, so Yann shows me around. The beautifully curated museum, set in a former judge's office, tells how, in Val de Travers, absinthe never really went away. "They used to drink 'Ovaltine' in the bars in opaque mugs," he says. "But inside it was absinthe."
The exhibits explore the ingenious methods used to hide the distillation process (tyres were burned and silage pits stirred to disguise the smell) and the various ways the finished product was concealed (for example, in recycled pineapple tins). This clandestine industry was aided by lenient judges, but, as you might imagine, there was also the occasional arrest.
The illicit production of absinthe was put in the spotlight in the 1960s, when a TV crew came to interview a bootlegger two weeks after he'd been busted by the police. The museum has recreated his secret distillery, while a TV shows black-and-white footage of the bootlegger demonstrating how a fake set of shelves swung open to reveal his stills. "He thought it was better publicity for his bootlegged absinthe to be on TV," says Yann. But I'm puzzled. "If this was filmed two weeks after he was arrested, then why isn't he in prison?" Yann shrugs. "Oh, he would have just been fined."
Another audacious flaunting of the law occurred during the visit of the then French president François Mitterrand in 1983. A local chef prepared a dessert for the president and his entourage: a cold soufflé, with one special ingredient — absinthe. According to Yann, a French journalist covering the visit was so taken aback he blurted out, "But isn't absinthe banned?" The chef, Daniel Aymone, was unmoved, replying nonchalantly, "Oh yes." When I try the dessert later, at lunch, it's delicious — the absinthe lending a spearmint flavour to the delicate cream.
Back in the bar area, I admire the 28 different brands made by 17 different Swiss distillers — some in slender bottles, others in fatter ones, but all with labels beautifully adorned with fairies, art nouveau curves or scenes from the historic posters. While most distilleries here create a clear spirit, there are a few brands of green absinthe, presented in opaque black or green bottles. "The green colour comes from chlorophyll in the nettle or mint, or hysopp, or even spinach, but it's very difficult to get the balance and the colour right," explains Yann. "The sunlight can affect it. It can look like mud, and sometimes the green sinks to the bottom, so that's why green absinthe is usually in a black bottle." One of the most striking of these is from a distillery owned by goth rocker Marilyn Manson, who, as celebrities go, seems a neat fit for a once-banned, often-misunderstood spirit.
In the next village, Boveresse, Philippe Martin runs his family's once-clandestine, but now happily legal, distillery and grew up with absinthe ever-present. "My father was a bootlegger during the prohibition, his uncle as well; someone in the family was always involved. I remember, as a kid, the bathtub always being used for the stills' cooling system."
Philippe tells me how his father would wait until the wind was blowing in the right direction before he made a batch, so the authorities wouldn't detect him. He'd also use passwords while discussing it on the phone, and all the while was supplying it to his colleagues at a telecoms company in Neufchatel — telling them he'd bought it from a friend.
His distillery, La Valote Martin, is one of very few that oversees the whole process, from growing the plants to drying them and using them in the spirit. Set in a large chalet building with green shutters on the outside and creaking floorboards within, Philippe's copper stills take pride of place in one of the huge fireplaces. Opposite, in the pretty walled garden, the grey-flowered wormwood plants grow alongside the other vital herbs and flowers.
For the herbs to be used in the stills, they must first be dried, which Philippe does in the attic of the building. We climb the creaking, crooked stairs, past peeling 1970s wallpaper and dusty fittings, before we reach a final flight that's almost as steep as a ladder. At the top, the drying racks come into view. On lines and lines of musty wooden beams, the grey flowers hang in bunches. A light, herbal aroma reaches our nostrils, while shafts of light from the windows give it a slightly creepy air; I almost expect Miss Havisham to be sitting in a corner.
We finish with a tasting in the small bar area, where Philippe explains how many distillers today are making blends that are sweet enough to be drunk without the sugar cube — with only the water dripped from a fountain or a jug. As I'm driving, I can only afford a sip, but the flavour is refreshing, the tartness of the aniseed softened by a gentle blend of other botanicals.
Later, I meet Yann back at the Maison de l'Absinthe and we drive to a walking trail in the woods that leads to one of the town's former illicit drinking dens. Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at the spring, top up our glasses of absinthe and raise a toast. "Santé!" The French 'cheers' means 'good health', and after this foray into the Green Fairy's heartland, I know both my santé, and sanity, are safe.
Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food