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

Absinthe reviews: the numerology of la fée verte

Age may be just a number, but scoring absinthe goes far beyond the digits scrawled on a sheet of paper which is slightly wet at the corner because you’ve been sitting your glass down there instead of on the coaster you neglected to bring over to the table. An absinthe score can often reveal as much about the drinker as the drink itself, while simultaneously issuing a firm judgment from the bench without revealing any mitigating circumstances which may have applied. Actual written reviews allow for complete control over how to present impressions, thoughts, and feelings about the drink, as well as control over the tone of voice and inflections used to convey that information; reviewers can even include anecdotes and background information which has little or nothing to do with the absinthe itself, all to the point of establishing a certain mood or setting in which to present their more concrete determinations. In short, a review is a subjective take on what value that particular absinthe holds for the reviewer; in contrast, a score is an objective determination of what value that absinthe should hold for everyone else (insofar as any human individual can be objective).

I’m not an expert on the subject of absinthe, but I’ve had the good fortune of being able to drink quite a few different ones over the past three years, and I believe that knowledge base may be of some use to some people who are considering a purchase in the near future. While I’ve taken notes on almost everything I’ve ever sampled, and even published a number of reviews online, that would be a lot of unnecessarily detailed information to force someone to wade through before dropping a pair of Benjamins on a couple of bottles of good absinthe. Consider the numbers below to be the Cliff’s notes version, minus the notes.

I’ll continue to add new scores to this list as I sample more absinthes. Perhaps at some later date, I’ll also add in three or seven descriptors to provide a little extra insight and detail (and yes, it has to be three or seven; not only are they prime numbers, but they are magic ones as well, and I’ve got to justify that title up there somehow, gentle reader). For now, though, the numbers below represent the final score (which is given first), and then in parenthesis I have given the score for each of the two categories that I wrote about previously in this post – namely, Appearance and Aroma, as well as Flavor and Finish.

Stock market figures be damned, here are the numbers that matter:

Score

  • 10 (5/5) Edouard Pernod [pre-ban circa 1905]
  • 10 (5/5) Pernod Tarragona [non-ban circa 1956]
  • 10 (5/5) Brevans H.R. Giger
  • 10 (5/5) La Capricieuse
  • 10 (5/5) Walton Waters
  • 9 (4/5) Pernod Fils [preban circa 1910]
  • 9 (4/5) Doubs Mystique
  • 9 (5/4) Jade Edouard
  • 9 (4/5) La Clandestine
  • 9 (5/4) Meadow of Love
  • 9 (4/5) Pacifique
  • 9 (4/5) Ridge Blanche
  • 9 (4/5) Ridge Verte
  • 9 (4/5) Sapphire la bleue
  • 8 (4/4) Belle Amie
  • 8 (4/4) Berthe de Joux
  • 8 (3/5) Blues Cat
  • 8 (4/4) Duplais blanche
  • 8 (4/4) Essai 5 Blanche “Brut d’Alambic”
  • 8 (4/4) Leopold Bros.
  • 7 (4/3) Duplais verte
  • 7 (4/3) Vieux Pontarlier
  • 7 (3/4) Eichelberger 68 Limitee
  • 7 (4/3) Kübler [European version]
  • 7 (3/4) LDF Absinthe Suisse La Verte (PAS AUTHORISEE par le VdT)
  • 7 (3/4) Mansinthe
  • 6 (3/3) La Valote
  • 6 (3/3) Obsello
  • 6 (3/3) Père François
  • 6 (3/3) Vieux Carre
  • 5 (3/2) Lucid
  • 5 (3/2) Un Emile 45 [reformulated 2011 version]
  • 4(3/1) Trillium
  • 4 (3/1) Pernod aux extraits de plantes d’absinthe [modern Pernod]
  • 3 (2/1) St. George
  • 2 (2/0) La Charlotte

Absinthe Premier Fils promotional dice. Photo by Marc Thuillier.

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.

Sapphire absinthe

While every absinthe enthusiast fantasizes about stumbling across a cache of old dusty crates, prying them open with a crowbar and searching through the 100+ years old packing material to discover several bottles of pre-ban absinthe, it is in fact a rare treat to have even so much as a 1 oz sample. I myself have had the good fortune to acquire three such samples, and they are a unique experience to look forward to in the weeks leading up to tasting it, and to savor for years afterward.

However, there are a few excellent modern absinthes which are likewise a rarity, even after a span of only a few years. One such absinthe is a Swiss la bleue called Sapphire, which was distilled by Claude-Alain Bugnon in 2010 (and perhaps earlier, as well). This fantastic blanche was beautifully clear, as are the best la bleues which come from Switzerland, but it also had a higher thujone content than is allowed by law, which is why it is no longer available. While the amount of thujone is absinthe is already minimal, the legal limit for absinthes in the United States is 10 ppm, while in Europe the limit is 35 ppm. I have personally never experienced any of the hallucinatory “effects” which many folks hope and wish absinthe produced, and chemical tests have likewise debunked the notion. However, old ghosts are hard to kill, and so the measurable amount of thujone is strictly enforced. The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) in the United States even goes a bit further, insisting that no absinthe product can have the label “absinthe” as a stand-alone word (which is why so many are called “absinthe superiore”), nor can names or graphics hinting at death, the occult, visions or hallucinogenic effects be part of the labeling or packaging. One gets the impression that if someone said “boo” while they were looking at a bottle of absinthe they would wet their pants and call in the National Guard.

But oh how I digress. In any case, no true absinthe lover cares about the thujone level, as it is so negligible an amount, whether it is 5 ppm or 50 ppm. When a European friend offered me a sample of this rare and hard-to-find absinthe, I did say no to her, and after experiencing it I’m so glad I didn’t. Simply opening the bottle and inhaling the aroma was a true joy. Some blanches have a scent reminiscent of wet grass or seaweed at the center of their aroma, which is a bit off-putting to me, but Sapphire was strong with crisp wormwood and hint of  baby powder, which is a common descriptor for hyssop. I figured that this absinthe would be sweet, and it was. Rich with herbs, the louche finished so quickly that I nearly missed it, and this is one that you want to use a slow drip on with ice cold water.

But the taste! The fennel and melissa (lemon balm) were definitely up front and extroverted, but the very fine wormwood maintained a hot rhythm section underneath which wouldn’t be ignored. The drink was very crisp, and while the mouthfeel wasn’t what I would describe as creamy at first (which is not a criticism, but simply an observation), adding half a teaspoon of agave nectar added that dimension to it. While blanches are traditionally not sweetened, I do still tend to do so with about half as much sugar or agave as I would use with a verte. This absinthe was delicious with or without sweetener.

Oh, and for the record, I neither saw fairies, monsters, nor devils; I did not paint a beautiful picture or write a heart-rending poem; and I did not cut off my ear and have it couriered to my favorite prostitute. An opportunity squandered, I suppose. But at least I do have a pretty picture of the Sapphire bottle, along with a louched dose of it in a Pontarlier glass with “see-saw” brouillieur on top, which was taken by “Michael in Poland.” Enjoy!