Originally produced in the Val-de-Travers region in Switzerland and in Pontarlier, France, Absinthe is a distilled anise-flavoured spirit made from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the plant Artemisia Absinthium, also called Wormwood. It’s the same botanical as used in Vermouth.
Although it is sometimes termed a liqueur, absinthe has no added sugar and is therefore considered a spirit. There is a degree of theatre in its final presentation to the customer. It’s probably the whole ceremony surrounding the serving of absinthe that has helped its popularity. It isn’t a drink to be hurried, and perhaps it’s the hypnotic power of water slowly dripping that helps the eagerly-waiting consumer to relax.
The classic absinthe ritual involves placing a cube of sugar on an ornate, flat, perforated spoon which rests on the rim of the glass containing a measure of absinthe. Iced water (for best effect from a tap on a special water fountain) is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube. The rate of drip should be about 1 per second so evenings with absinthe could be long. The water gently dissolves the sugar into the absinthe which causes the green colour to change, through yellow into an opaque yellow/white with a magical rim of green. Usually three to five parts of water are added to one part of absinthe. To find your personal ratio, you should start with a glass of absinthe then, little by little, add water and sugar until you reach your preferred mix. The sugar not only softens the bitterness but is said to subtly enhance the herbal flavour of the drink. It will be appreciated by those who enjoy aniseed- and fennel-flavoured spirits such as Greek ouzo and the like.
La Fée Verte
But what of the history of this characterful drink, which was for so long banned? Almost from its invention, absinthe has been known as “La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy”, as it is said to have “seductive and intoxicating powers”. Hang about – it’s my mother-in-law’s favourite drink! She must be leading a double life!
Absinthe was once marketed as a product for purifying water, and as a tonic. It was reputed to stave off malaria so was given in quantity to French soldiers fighting in Algeria in the 1840s. They seem to have developed a taste for the ‘medicine’ and wanted more on their return to cooler climes.
In 1876 Degas painted L’Absinthe, one of his most celebrated works, being exhibited in London in 1893. George Moore wrote in The Speaker on 25 February of that year: “…she did not get up until half-past eleven; then she tied a few soiled petticoats round her, slipped on that peignoir, thrust her feet into those loose morning shoes, and came down to the café to have an absinthe before breakfast. Heavens! – what a slut! A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face; we read there her whole life. The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson.” This is a famous picture, but one suspects that any spirit at hand could have done the damage to the central character.
In 1890, when Armand Guy set up his distillery in Pontarlier, France, the town was the capital of absinthe production. In those years most of the population was involved in some way in making absinthe. The Jura Mountains region not only offers the best conditions for growing the necessary botanicals for flavouring absinthe, but they are also the playground for discerning visitors wanting fun in the snow or the summer diversions of local food and culture.
Blamed on the wine shortage in France
This drink hit its peak during the years 1880-1910 with its dramatic fall in price, becoming affordable to all levels of society. The unthinkable happened: it soon rivalled wine as the drink of choice in France. It was the “Belle Époque” and society ladies, gentlemen, politicians, artists, musicians, dancers, the ordinary working classes drank absinthe. In 1874 the French consumed 700,000 litres, but by 1910 the number was nearer 36,000,000 litres per year. This rise has been blamed on the wine shortage in France due to phylloxera-diseased vines which decimated the vineyards. Or was it that the population was just hooked on cheap booze?
Its critics were those with wine-invested interests and they insisted, with the help of dubious ‘scientific evidence’, that “Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant; it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.” That sounds more like bargain supermarket vodka in the UK than a well-crafted and aromatic beverage in La Belle France!
The last straw was the bloody “Absinthe Murder” that took place in Switzerland in 1905 and gave the wine lobby the excuse they needed to ban absinthe. Monsieur Lanfray shot his whole family after drinking absinthe. He had in fact also consumed several bottles of wine and a good (or bad) amount of brandy but this was overlooked by the biased campaigners, and two years later absinthe was banned in Switzerland. By 1915 absinthe was officially banned by the French, who didn’t repeal this law until 2001 (although it was modified in 1988 to allow for some types of absinthe to be sold, under another name).
Charming introduction to the production of absinthe
There are, these days, more than 160 absinthes being produced in various countries, and amongst them Pierre Guy Absinthe is highly rated for quality. Those aforementioned vacationers might take their first sips of this spirit at the company distillery, but only after the distillery tour. It’s a fascinating and rather charming introduction to the production of absinthe. Copper pot stills shine, and the distinct anise-like aroma hangs enticingly in the air. The company shop offers all their products to the visitor, as well as the opportunity to taste. I was particularly taken by their gift sets of glasses, spoons and absinthe. Perfect for any absinthe aficionado or somebody that would like to be.
These days the Green Fairy is enjoying her return to the Jura’s lush and hospitable mountains and that is as it should be. She holds a wand, as should all good fairies, and with that she bestows memorable drinks and convivial evenings. Absinthe is a unique beverage with ritual and charm, and it’s a delight to a have a glimpse into its production at the Pierre Guy Distillery.
Tuesday to Friday: 8am-12 noon and 2pm-6pm
Saturday: 8am-12 noon.
Free tours and tastings take place every half hour:
Tuesday to Friday: 8:30am to 11:30am and 2:30pm to 5:30pm
Saturday: 8:30am to 11:30am
Closed on Saturday afternoon, Sunday, Monday and French holidays
Pierre Guy Distillery
49 rue des Lavaux
Phone: +33 (0)3 81 39 04 70
Geneva Airport from airports across the UK and Europe
Dole Tavaux Airport from London Stansted, every Saturday from 22nd Dec 2018 to 30th March 2019 *NEW*
Basel-Mulhouse Airport from airports across the UK and Europe (for the northern part of the Jura mountains)
Most major car rental companies are represented at these airports.