GENEVA For centuries, poets and artists lauded the strong liqueur, known as the “green fairy”, for its inspirational powers, while authorities banned it as a cause of madness, murder and moral degeneracy.
There should be no concerns, however, about the drink’s 21st-century comeback. Legal in Switzerland since 2005, it was sanctioned in European Union countries in 1988, except for France. There is no evidence absinthe is more intoxicating than other alcoholic beverages consumed in excess. According to popular legend, absinthe was created in the Swiss town of Couvet in the Val-de-Travers (NE) in the late 18th century as a medicinal elixir. Historians differ as to whether it was invented by a French doctor living in Couvet, Dr Pierre Ordinaire, or by the two Henroid sisters, who sold their formula to Henry-Louis Pernod. He opened the first absinthe distillery in Couvet in 1797 and a second one in Pontarlier, France in 1805 under the company name Maison Pernod Fils.
The green 60_70% proof elixir was given as a fever preventative in the 1840s to French troops, who brought back their taste for the spirit from campaigns in Indo-china. By the 1860s absinthe had become so popular with the bourgeoisie and bohemian artists that it was considered France’s favourite drink. The reputation that it made people crazy was popularised in the Edgar Degas painting The Absinthe Drinker and Émile Zola’s treatise on alcoholism, L’assommoir.
Produced in Switzerland for more than two centuries, absinthe was banned in 1910 because of its alleged harmful effects. France followed suit in 1915 (only re-legalising it in 2011!). Absinthe continued to be made clandestinely by several women in the Val-de-Travers, who had inherited the original recipe and kept the tradition alive. The label absinthe Suisse has long been used in France to indicate the highest quality. Claude-Alain Bugnon of Couvet, who knew the nephew of one of the Val-de-Travers women, Charlotte Vaucher, was among the first to come out into the open when the nearly century-old Swiss ban was lifted. Today his Distillery-Artemisia produces several different types and colours of absinthe, including the appropriately named La Clandestine.
“The traditional recipe remains in the hands of older people who had it handed down to them for generations,” Bugnon explained. “They modified it over the years because we have different tastes today. The original plant, artemisia absinthium (wormwood), is quite bitter and we now mix it with other plants to make a better tasting drink.” The current white absinthe is believed to have originated in the clandestine period when distillers produced a spirit, which contains no sugar, to fool customs into thinking it was another colourless eau-de-vie. The Swiss add sugar only to the classic fée vert absinthe, which has a higher alcoholic content (70%), and is diluted with water like its cousin Pernod.