For decades Absinthe has been described as being a deadly addictive psychoactive drug due to the presence of thujone, its chemical compound. It is erroneous to consider of its damaging effect because only a small amount can be found in Absinthe spirit and unless it is taken in a very large quantity, it is harmless. In the nineteenth century when production was not properly controlled, it was probable that at the heights of its popularity toxic adulterants were added to create a cheaper variant of Absinthe. By 1915 the production of Absinthe was prohibited in all Europe till its revival in 1988. By 2005 when the ban on the forbidden fruit was lifted the production of Absinthe proliferated, allowing thujone to be used up to 35mg. Like many herbal plants, the wormwood is known since ancient Egypt and used for medicinal purposes. As herbal tea, woodworm eases digestive problems. In ancient Greece the plant was mixed in wine as Absinthe Oinos. But it was not till the eighteenth century when the plant was first distilled with other herbs to create the famous Absinthe spirit drink. It was in the Swiss village of Couvet in Val-de-Travers when the first Absinthe distillery was founded in 1797 before it made it’s way to France to become one of the world’s most popular drink. The first French distillery to begin producing this spirit drink is in the town of Pontarlier in Doubs in the Jura Mountains along the Swiss border. Tracing back the fabulous story of Absinthe is to follow The Absinthe Trail. From France to Switzerland, visit the museums, distilleries, Absinthe bars while discovering the scenic land of Absinthe along the way. Unique in the world, I begin The Absinthe Trail from Pontarlier. Pontarlier town museum houses an interesting collection spanning the history of Absinthe. It offers visitors a glimpse into the fascinating world of this spirit drink through a collection of unique items revealing the important role it played in literature and the arts.
The distillery in Pontarlier is my next stop. A historic local distillery, the production at Emile Pernot still use a nineteenth century alembics to make high quality Absinthe. Popularly known as ” La Fée Verte” or the “green fairy” due to its greenish colour (it may also be whitish or in different colours) Absinthe is made from the Wormwood plant. Three basic plants are used to make Absinthe, the grande absinthe (Artemisia Absinthium), petite absinthe (Artemisia Pontica), green anise and fennel. In France, fennel is rarely used for Absinthe. Other herbs may be added to render a specific colour and enhance the aroma, such as melissa, hyssop, star anise, coriander, angelica and mint. In Switzerland Absinthe drink is known as “La Bleue”
Van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet and many others enjoy this spirit drink, a theme often depicted in their art works. Absinthe is a culture on its own and although it can be plainly served with a jug of water, consuming “the green fairy” follows a certain ritual. The French way is to pour the spirit into special “Pontarlier glass”, it is then mixed with water by pouring it onto a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon. The water poured into the Absinthe would turned the liquid to opaque colour bringing out all the aromatic flavours which otherwise remain insoluble within the spirit.
Crossing the border from France, I am now in Val-de-Travers birthplace of the “green fairy”. Accompanied by Nicolas Giger, the Swiss French born, President of the Absinthe Association and an Absinthe expert, I was shown to his lovely aromatic garden. He too produces his own Absinthe but for his own use. And here he is among the wormwood plants. An active promoter for the cultural heritage of the region, Nicolas has successfully brought forth his most cherished project “La vy aux moines”. A hike of 33 km through a footpath retracing the life and work of the monks who once inhabited the region during the middle ages. You can hike or cycle the well marked path from the Abbey of Montbenoit in Doubs (Val de Saugeais in France) to Môtiers (Val de Travers in Switzerland) while discovering the beautiful countryside and historic sites.
My next stop along The Absinthe Trail is the nineteenth century barn in the village of Boveresse – not to be missed. The unique “sechoir à absinthe” built in 1893 was used as a storage and for drying herbal plants, wormwood, mint, Melissa and hyssop grown around the area for the local distilleries. If in the olden days wormwood plants were cultivated in a large scale, today there is only a handful of these aromatic gardens spread around Val-de-Travers.
When the production of Absinthe was outlawed, many went underground to continue making the “green goddess” in secret. The wooded hilly landscape of Val-de-Travers with its many secluded forest paths, makes it a perfect hiding place for smugglers and bootleggers. But when they do get caught they were brought to the court house in Môtiers. The irony is that today this building is now home to the house of Absinthe. While production was banned, consuming the beverage was not, so illegal distillers proliferated. Among them is Daniel Guilloud, today runs his own Absinthe shop. Here he is portrayed in front of his distillery equipment made by an artisan from the time of the prohibition period.
There are many stories relating to Absinthe during its heyday and the prohibition period. One of those is the ill fated “Marie Thérèse” ship, that sailed in 1872 from Bordeaux to Saigon carrying thousands of wine, champagne and Absinthe bottles. The ship sank in the Gaspar Straits near the Thousands Islands (Pulau Seribu) in the Indonesian waters. Among those found in the wreckage were Absinthe bottles originating from the distillery of Pernod. These bottles are now part of the collection of the newly opened Maison de l’Absinthe in Môtiers.