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Chasing the green fairy: the absinthe distilleries of France and Switzerland

Chasing the green fairy: the absinthe distilleries of France and Switzerland

by Nick Harman 23 March 2018

Once unfairly demonised, real artisan absinthe is now a drink that could easily be the new gin. Nick Harman visits the distilleries creating it to find out more.

‘People used to ring me up and ask, ‘can I buy a rabbit and two chickens?’ And I’d know how many bottles of absinthe they wanted and what type. You had to be careful talking on the phone back then!’

Willy Bovet chuckles at the memory of the old days when absinthe was banned and making it was illegal. ‘All of us small distillers were outlaws, of course. Every now and then someone would be raided, but it was just a token gesture, a fine, and the impounded absinthe always seemed to go back into circulation.’

Willy is a spry, whippet thin man in his eighties, a Swiss artisan distiller who makes absinthe at Absinthe Bovet La Valote in the Swiss village of Môtiers. He makes it the proper traditional way using ten different locally grown aromatic herbs and botanicals. ‘I pick only the very best,’ he says, stirring an emerald green concoction in a pot. This will become one of his premium drinks, the award-winning 77% ABV Emeraud Absinthe.

Real absinthe is always distilled, not mixed, and uses the dried flowers and leaves of a plant called Artemisia Absinthium; in fact, two kinds of plant: Grande Absinthe is for the main distillation and Petit Absinthe goes in towards the end, its chlorophyll helping create the iconic green colour. Then, if made by a proper artisan distiller like Willy, it’s aged for months in barrels before bottling.

The absinthe plant favours high altitudes and a cool climate, which is why its distillation is traditionally centered in the area that stretches across the border between Franche-Comté in France and the Val-de-Traversin Switzerland. In some ways absinthe as a drink resembles gin; it’s distilled from spirit that is infused with botanicals such as aniseed, fennel seed and other medicinal herbs, and it’s an easy production process for the small start-up craft producer.

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The spirit took off in popularity because the French troops stationed in North Africa during the French colonial wars in 1830–1847 were encouraged to drink it. Its high alcohol content partly sterilised the water and helped prevent dysentery. They brought that acquired taste back to France and its popularity grew.

By the 1860s the hour of 5pm was called l'heure verte (‘the green hour’) and all social classes were drinking absinthe. By 1910 almost 36 million litres a year were being knocked back. It wasn’t to be taken lightly though; today most absinthe is a hefty 45–70% ABV, but back then it was often well up in the 90s.

‘This is mostly why it acquired its reputation as a kind of drug,’ director Yann Klauser explains as he walks me round the very modern La Maison D’Absinthe in Môtiers, ironically created from the courthouse where illegal distillers were once fined. Here you can taste scores of absinthes and learn its history. ‘There was the Bohemian Paris connection too,’ he points out, ‘but the fact is talk of hallucinations and green fairies is really just testament to how very drunk people got.’

Just like gin in times past, forces of commerce massed against absinthe. The winemakers were seeing their profits falling, especially at a time when their vines were being destroyed by the pest phylloxera, and pressure was put on to demonise the drink. The beautiful old advertising posters for absinthe were replaced by frightening drawings of men being dragged to hell by the Green Fairy, their weeping wives left destitute, their children in the poorhouse.

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By 1915 absinthe was banned in the United States, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria-Hungary. Pontarlier, the capital of absinthe with a score of independent distilleries making 10 million litres a year, lost them all and people lost their jobs. Monsieur Pernod didn’t though; he created a new drink with much the same taste as absinthe, but not illegal. You may have heard of it.

The ban on absinthe was only lifted in 2005 and from hidden places the stills reappeared and the old experts went back to work.

Not all distillers are old men though. I met many passionate young people such as Anne-Sophie and Arnaud Bourgeois of Distillerie Bourgeois at La Grange de la Mare, a couple eager to bring back the iconic trade. From Pontarlier you can strike off on the Route de l’Absinthe (The Absinthe Trail) which runs from Pontarlier in the west to Noraigue in the east and features over fifteen artisan distilleries. I quickly realised that each one is different, with the distillers making their own small changes to the recipe and process. You soon learn to distinguish all the complicated aromas and flavours and find your favourite style.

At Distillerie Armand Guy, built in 1890, Pierre Guy (the grandson of the founder) shows me how absinthe is properly prepared using the ‘French Method’. A classic ‘Pontarlier Glass’ designed with a special well at the bottom that holds 30ml of absinthe is placed under the traditional absinthe fountain filled with iced water which has a number of small taps. Over the glass is placed an absinthe ‘spoon’, a cube of sugar is placed on the spoon and the water is allowed to drip very slowly onto the sugar, dissolving it into the absinthe below. Some people use more or less water and some do without the sugar, enjoying the bitter aniseed flavours just as they are. As the water blends with the absinthe it turns opaque (known as the ‘Louche’) and the aromas rise up. Most fountains can drip at least four glasses at once, so it’s perfect to have on the table.

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Despite the wormwood in absinthe, good absinthe doesn’t taste all that bitter. Proper distillation smooths it out and the herbal notes come through with just a hint of the ‘amertume’, the bitterness. The aniseed notes, if proper anise and not star anise is used, is restrained and the drink is cool on the palate.

Another way of preparing absinthe involves dipping the sugar in absinthe first and setting it on fire on the spoon before dropping it into the glass and adding the water. This is called the Czech or Neue Bohemian way, but makes absinthe producers pull sour faces when you mention it. That’s because it’s generally used for absinthe made using a cold mix process which doesn’t involve distillation and isn’t what connoisseurs would call true absinthe at all.

Absinthe is also now finding its way into cocktails in Europe and the USA. It has to be used sparingly, as its flavours are powerful, and at the Employee's Bar in New York City for a cocktail called a Billionaire it’s mixed with high-proof bourbon and pomegranate grenadine. There’s also Death in the Afternoon, a drink reputedly created by Hemingway which is simply Champagne and absinthe mixed together. If not actually death, then an early night is on the cards.

With so many independent craft brands of absinthe now available, it is quickly returning to savvy bar shelves and becoming a drink well in tune with the times. The Green Fairy has landed.

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