Neutral no more: Switzerland goes for the green

It has been reported today that the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland has been granted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI labels, which include the terms “absinthe,” “Fee verte,” and “la bleue.” Given that food labels used in Switzerland are now recognized by the European Union (and vice-versa), what this means is that traditionally-distilled absinthe sold in the EU and Switzerland may only bear the actual name of “absinthe” if they were made in the Val-de-Travers region, depending on how this action progresses and is interpreted/enforced in the future. The original statement may be found here.

Of particular insult is this particular quote: “Absinthe, Fée verte and La Bleue evoke an ‘eau-de-vie’ traditionally associated with the Val-de-Travers region which has built the reputation of this product.”

No. For starters, anyone with even a passing knowledge of absinthe, the French city of Pontarlier is far and away the most famous geographical area associated with absinthe. Was it invented there? No. Was its reputation built there? Most definitely, and without question. Anyone who attempts to argue otherwise is embarrassing themselves and probably has something to sell.

The Val-de-Travers may rightly take credit for being the birthplace of absinthe. But just as almost every famous person in the world was born in one place and built their reputation somewhere else, so too with absinthe. Pontarlier was the capital city of absinthe, and French distillation and consumption of absinthe in the 19th and early 20th century far outpaced that of Switzerland. In addition, the “Swiss style” of absinthe is that of the clear (blanche), and production of green (verte) absinthe was very low, so to lay claim to the colloquial term of Fée verte is reprehensible. What’s more is that it’s shocking, considering how full of national pride both Switzerland and France are known for. There is a case to be made for the Val-de-Travers to establish a PDO for “la bleue,” but the fact that they would lay claim to a term which is historically proven to have made its name in France is astonishing.

Of course, absinthe, aka the Fée verte, isn’t the only thing which is green, and it would appear that the potential revenue to be gained from a resurgence of absinthe is a factor in this pursuit of a PDO. Granted, the need to establish a formal definition of absinthe in order to protect the category from the faux-absinthe products pouring out of the Czech Republic is there, but that’s where the focus should have started and stopped. Genuine absinthe is not exclusive to a region – it’s exclusive to a list of ingredients and method of manufacture. In addition to Switzerland and France, absinthe of the 19th century was also made in countries as far away as the United States and Argentina (yes, THAT Argentina). For that matter, absinthe was made in Spain and continued to be made in Spain for over FIFTY YEARS after Switzerland made it illegal, and even then Spain didn’t ban the liquor – it simply fell out of favor for a time. If one country has to be given a Protected Designation of Origin, then let it be Spain, who actually protected real absinthe long after it’s birth-nation kicked it to the curb.

Real absinthe has since been made in the afore-mentioned countries here in modern times, and has branched out to others like Germany and Austria, the Netherlands and South Africa. It will still be real absinthe regardless of what this PDO says, but it would be much more responsible and honest for the Val-de-Travers folk to acknowledge it. Establishing and protecting the definition of absinthe here in modern times while encouraging and applauding its continued manufacture around the world would be something that the Val-de-Travers and all of Switzerland could take some real national pride in.

The only bottle of Butterfly Absinthe (distilled in Boston, MA, USA) known to survive. Circa 1907. Found on Oxygenee.com

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6 Comments

  1. August 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    […] from being labeled as such. Even if it was made in the epicenter of absinthe; Pontarlier, France. Absinthefiend’s post on the subject highlights this matter succinctly (Please read. The Fiend brings up a few things I […]

  2. Alan said,

    August 16, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    You write “Given that food labels used in Switzerland are now recognized by the European Union (and vice-versa), what this means is that traditionally-distilled absinthe sold in the EU and Switzerland may only bear the actual name of “absinthe” if they were made in the Val-de-Travers region.” There is nothing automatic about this process and if it were to be considered, it would be subject to intense discussion, taking in all the views of EU producers, including companies such as Pernod-Ricard.

    In any case, protection outside Switzerland has not been the issue for the Swiss absinthe makers or consumers: protection within Switzerland from the fake absinthes that have plagued the rest of the world is the issue as far as they are concerned.

    • August 18, 2012 at 10:34 am

      Thanks for the follow-up, Alan. I amended my original wording about 5 minutes after posting to allow for the fact that this is not yet quite a done deal, but you probably only saw the very original post in your email if you are following my blog.

      Based on how things have progressed to this point, it appears that this Swiss PDO action will carry though next month. Regardless of the number of hoops which may need to be jumped through in order to get this recognized throughout the EU, having it established in Switzerland sets a dangerous precedent which would lend weight to those intense discussion which you mentioned . I do agree with the notion that the market would benefit from having fake absinth(e)s differentiated from genuine absinthe, but it seems to me that could be accomplished simply with a correct legal definition of the category, and that no PDO would be necessary. If that definition were to be established (and enforced), any product which didn’t have an appropriately significant amount of wormwood and anise (for instance) would not be allowed to be labeled absinthe. Would you not agree that a solution of this sort would solve the problem of fake absinthes in the Swiss marketplace?

      • Alan said,

        August 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm

        That’s not the way the EU works … and, yes, all of the rules about IGP’s, AOC’s etc stem from the EU, and Switzerland, as it moves closer to the EU, has to go along with the EU’s rules. The EU has a hierarchy of rules in this area: strict Swiss regulation can be “trumped” by the Cassis de Dijon principle (google that), and it takes an IGP to beat that. It’s a system that has evolved over years in the EU and it probably seems crazy to Americans.

        By the way, Switzerland had to accept over 800 IGP’s imposed on it by the EU a couple of years ago, and many local companies had to adapt quite significantly to cope with that. If they were able to do so ….

      • August 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm

        I have read about the Cassis de Dijon case before, although admittedly many of the details and applications of the ruling are difficult to follow, and I’m not certain of how much of that ruling would apply to Switzerland at the moment since it is not yet a member of the EU. You’re right – it is confusing to Americans (or at least to this American in particular).

        Pernod-Ricard is definitely a mega-corporation with a dog in this fight, albeit a flea-bitten and toothless mutt. As poor as their current absinthe product may be, though, it seems unlikely that they would simply roll over on this, but I can’t imagine the V-d-T distillers bothering with this IGP campaign at all if they felt like they would gain no traction with it in the marketplace. If it’s passed in Switzerland, and Switzerland is not quite in the EU but might soon be, and is already implementing some application of EU standards and such… well, I think you can understand both the confusion and the concern for the rest of the absinthe world. Thanks for making the waters a little less muddy, though.

      • Alan said,

        August 18, 2012 at 9:50 pm

        See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rewe-Zentral_AG_v_Bundesmonopolverwaltung_f%C3%BCr_Branntwein
        There’s even a paragraph on Switzerland there.

        Most of the VDT distillers only sell their absinthes in the VDT region. And they want to protect that from all the fake absinthes that have plagued the rest of Europe. Look at what’s available in Italy, Germany, Austria (not to mention the Czech Republic) and you might understand their concern!


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