A Taste of Switzerland: Absinthe Anyone?
by Sonja Holverson
Our thoughts immediately go back to Bohemian culture, to writers and artists of 19th-century France: absinthe, also known as La Fée Verte (literally, “the green fairy”), was created in the canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, notably in the Jura Mountains bordering France. Most of the production has traditionally been in small quantities. But absinthe is back after being outlawed for nearly a century.
Absinthe glass and customary spoon
The liquor, high in alcohol content and with a full anise flavor, is made from plants such as anise, fennel, flowers, and leaves of the medicinal plant called Artemisia Absinthium, which we know as wormwood, and which is found in abundance in Switzerland. Other herbs such as lemon balm angelica, dittany, coriander, juniper and nutmeg are sometimes added. The nickname “green fairy” comes from its color, a pale green.
Chemist and absinthe expert T.A. Breaux describes it as “a push-me, pull-you effect of the various herbs; some have a heightening effect while others have a lowering effect.” It as a double impact: a sensation of inebriation along with a heightened state of clarity.
Romanticized by many famous people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Ernest Hemingway and the list goes on, absinthe is ever-present in both the stories and works of these creative people.
“L’Absinthe” by Edgar Degas 1876
Practical uses were also found during this period of history and absinthe was given to French troops to prevent fever. Naturally, they acquired a taste for the “green fairy” and when they returned home, they popularized the drink in bars, bistros and cabarets. Absinthe was initially expensive, but when prices declined, the French began drinking it to excess and experienced addictive psychoactive reactions. As a result, opposition movements started scare campaigns that resulted in the ban of absinthe in 1914 in France.
Ironically, Switzerland had already banned it in 1907, although the production went underground and home distillers produced the much sought-after liquor clandestinely in small quantities. In the U.S., it was banned in 1912. By 1915, most European countries followed suit, except Britain, where it was not popular, and both the production and consumption of absinthe were made illegal.
In the mid-1990s, legal practices regarding absinthe were highly ambiguous. Drinking it was legal, but producing it was illegal. Former French President Jacques Chirac drew criticism from his own citizens because he drank absinthe during a state visit to Switzerland in the late 1990s. President Chirac and I had something in common but no one really cared if I drank it… Anyway, it was difficult to come by and you had to have friends who lived in the canton of Neuchâtel to get your hands on it.
With renewal of interest on the part of both producers and consumers, the Swiss Parliament lifted the 97-year ban on the production, sales and consumption of absinthe in 2004. A French absinthe producer, Lucid, was the first absinthe producer to receive certification in France in 2007.
Other European countries followed, and by 2008, there were nearly 200 brands of absinthe available in a dozen countries such as Switzerland, France, Spain and the Czech Republic.
In the U.S., the first legal brand of absinthe was approved in 2007: St. George Absinthe Verte, made in Northern California.
Kubler Swiss Absinthe
While visiting Switzerland, some of you may want to taste this once forbidden elixir. Kubler Absinthe was the first Swiss absinthe to become commercially available and has an excellent reputation for being the highest quality of all international absinthe brands. They use only natural plants in accordance with local traditions, rather than extracts or oils that are used by some other European producers.
Another excellent Swiss brand is Absinthe Studer, made of distilled wormwood, a blend of 8 different secretly selected herbs, pure alcohol and fresh water from their own spring. The original recipe has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation despite the 97 years of legal issues.
But the Studer family is open to innovation and have collaborated with the famous haute couturier chocolatiers, the Beschle family in Basel, producing Studer’s absinthe-filled milk chocolate pralines in the shape of the most famous Swiss Alp, the Matterhorn.
Beschle’s Studer Absinthe, Swiss Collection
The country fair stand “Absintissimo” serving absinthe from the local producers of the region is always a highlight at the Fall Automanales Fair held in Geneva every November.
Absintissimo: Swiss-made “green fairy”
So fascinating is the story of absinthe that this elixir is being used as the backdrop for a film currently being produced called “Les Absintheurs” (The Absinthe Drinkers), due out in 2012. The plot is not so much about the drink as about the people in the era when the green fairy was a part of daily life in Paris. The film recounts the life of a talented young woman painter in an art scene dominated by men in 1889 (one year before van Gogh died). It takes places during the Impressionist period in the then-decadent Montmartre neighborhood of Paris.
Enjoy your taste of the once forbidden green fairy while in Switzerland, but if you are obliged go pass through the United States Customs, keep in mind that despite the allowance of local production of absinthe in the U.S., it is prohibited to bring it into the country.
A version of this article was originally published in Nile Guide.