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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And you thought Switzerland had always been neutral

Co-opting the idea of supposed religious determinism and putting it to use in the political arena is a time-dishonored tradition that goes back to the first creature which crawled forth from the primordial ooze and made his way straight to the top of the mountain to lord it over the other oozelings. In terms of Christianity itself, it goes at least as far back as Constantine claiming to have Jesus on his side and insisting that all of his soldiers paint crosses onto their shields prior to viciously butchering their enemies, despite the fact that mister pontifiex maximus himself did not officially convert until on his deathbed. One wonders how his clearly being ruled by superstition and political decorum didn’t precipitate calls of hypocrisy, if not heresy, but I suppose nobody wanted to be the one telling the emperor he had no clothes (or religious authority).

Similar legalistic posturings and propaganda masquerading as true faith-based initiatives have continued through the ages, and that includes much of the activity of the so-called Temperance Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. While much of the momentum behind this ideology boiled down simply to rural villages and towns resisting their way of life being on the decline due to the increased industrialization of the modern world, the rise of alcoholism as a social ill provided a convenient focus for the revival of “small town values” and lots of “come to Jesus” preaching.

You might be surprised to discover how little alcohol and alcoholism had to do with the true impetus behind Prohibition in the United States. Likewise, there were a variety of underlying cultural, political, and social variables in play in the very early 20th century when the international Temperance Movement was coming to a head, and as absinthe was so popular in France, Switzerland, and other European nations, it made for a logical target for “the drys'” opening salvo. Below, see an original copy of the infamous anti-prohibition poster created by Gantner which was first published in “Le Guguss,” a Swiss satirical revue edited by a man named Louis Bron. The poster decries the “death of absinthe” in Switzerland as a result of the 1910 ban. A rather macabre prohibitionist in the garb of a Catholic priest is seen standing on the corpse of the green fairy, a rictus smile across his face betraying his supposed honorable intentions. Behind him are Swiss citizens beseeching the heavens, as Switzerland herself sits in dejection.

The return of absinthe

That which was old may not ever be entirely new again, but those who are only just becoming acquainted with absinthe soon find themselves fascinated by the myths, rumors and lurid details of this forbidden liquid from times gone by. Tales of madness, murder, and hallucinogenic experiences rivaling those of illicit drugs swirled around absinthe in 19th century Europe, and after lying dormant for nearly 100 years, whispers of the same sort returned in the late 20th century to seduce a new generation looking to romanticize its own version of fin de siècle fatalism. New myths and legends involving absinthe were added into the pantheon of already tall tales and half-truths, such that the mildly entrancing experience of preparing and enjoying a glass of absinthe was now supposed to have heightened artistic ability to a level just short of demonic inspiration. That the liquor was banned by several countries in the very early 20th century, including Switzerland (absinthe’s birthplace), the United States, and France (its primary manufacturer and consumer) only added to the mystique.

Even so, the traditional absinthe ritual comprising sugar, water, and spoons didn’t seem to be sufficiently alluring for some, and through a combination of historical revisionism and clever marketing ploys, it was introduced into popular belief that there were antique precedents for including matches, occasional opiates, and a mathematical importance for thujone. Stories of fiery rituals in the faraway bars of Amsterdam or former Czechoslovakia made their way further west, as did dubious bottles of brightly-colored “absinth,” and movies and music videos featuring ultra-stylized representations of absinthe preparation. As a result, a new interest was sparked for a liquor which had been all but entirely forgotten  in the Americas, and after years of legal wrangling, it was announced that real absinthe finally was again available here for the first time since 1912.

In the past decade or two since the problematic initial resurrection of absinthe in the public consciousness, however, came both a renaissance of true absinthe distillation, as well as a return of some of the more serious condemnations of the drink. As a new generation of folks painstakingly researched century old documents to discover how fine absinthe was made and created faithful reproductions so that modern consumers could see what it was about this green liquid which for a time had made it even more popular in France than wine, many of the same misunderstandings of absinthe, particularly with regard to what thujone’s role is in absinthe, and how significant the levels are and are not, were disseminated exponentially via the internet. Some of that was done intentionally: unscrupulous distillers were attempting to sell and justify the fake version of absinthe which they had been making since the 1990s, while at the same time some potential consumers were willfully perpetuating the Faustian fantasy of a mystical, mind-altering potion which inspired great paintings and poetry at the cost of health and sanity. Further complicating matters were that some folks were raising honest concerns based on the few medical and scientific reports made in the 19th and early 20th centuries which seemed credible. It wouldn’t be until later that modern chemistry could disprove the notion that absinthe was somehow more dangerous or drug-like than other alcoholic drinks, but even then, there were many with a vested interest in continuing to make wild claims about the effects that their brand of absinthe would conjure, and a lack of a legal definition of absinthe allows them to continue to hawk what amounts to green-dyed schnapps as absinthe (or “absinth”).

In the meantime, thanks to the availability of a number of wonderful genuine absinthes on the market today, we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ban of absinthe in the United States by louching a glass of verte or blanche. Today and in the future, instead of only talking about what absinthe is or isn’t (then and now), we’re also going to look at how it was represented by the original authorities on the subject – contemporary writers, artists, distillers and absintheurs, from absinthe’s early beginnings in 18th century Switzerland through its Belle Epoque heyday and inevitable ban in France in 1915. We’ll start with my personal favorite: L’Absinthe (or, The Absinthe Drinker), by Edgar Degas. Not only was Edgar Degar a brilliant artist in his own right, but the subjects of this particular painting include actress Ellen Andrée, as well as writer/artist/print maker Marcellin Desboutin. Curiously enough, it was extremely controversial both during its initial exhibit in 1876 and its subsequent showings in 1892 and 1893, as the subjects pictured were considered by art critics of the time to be shockingly vulgar to the point of being immoral. While their reaction may say more about classism and social prejudices of the time than anything else, the glass of absinthe in front of the woman staring off into space did not go without note. (Click on the thumbnail for a high-resolution version.)

L'Absinthe (1876), by Edgar Degas (1834–1917).