Absinthe is at a strange point in its history. It's as if it was cryogenically frozen over a hundred years ago, and now it's been brought back to life and is learning slowly and awkwardly how to make it in the world of 2017. That's like bringing Thomas Edison to 2017, giving him some pocket money and telling him to go sell his inventions. You have to have a little sympathy for the green fairy. She's the one holding a cardboard sign on the corner looking for work, still trying to figure out where she is while clinging to her memories of where she came from. But I believe in a future for the green fairy. If you're not familiar with the absinthe ritual or the types of absinthes available on the market and how to tell the good from the bad, the "real" from the "fake," you're in the right place. If you're a seasoned absintheur yourself, you might find some new bottles and some new tasting notes below. Whether it's a Suisse Blanche or a traditional Verte, whether it's NGS-based or made from eau-de-vie, whether French style or Czech, every absinthe has its niche, and every absintheur has theirs. Here's a buyer's guide based on some absinthes I have sampled, organized by distiller and type of absinthe.
Every absinthe here was prepared in the traditional method, as I described in a previous blog post that you can read here if you're not familiar with the fountain, spoon, and sugar ritual.
Swiss White, Suisse La Bleue, Suisse Blanche, Absinthe Jeune
The heart of absinthe lies in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland, and no one can argue that. That is where absinthe was born and where it will never die. Even when absinthe was banned in Switzerland in 1910, distillers continued to produce small amounts of absinthe for their families and neighbors. It was during this 97-year ban that white absinthe became popular, on the grounds that it was not as obvious to scrutinizing authorities as its green predecessor. Today absinthe is legal in Switzerland, and, according to local distiller Claude-Alain Bugnon, there are over 200 absinthe distillers in the small valley, most of whom remain clandestine.
A good absinthe blanche tastes like springtime in a bottle. A characteristic of Swiss absinthe in particular is the strong floral aroma that comes from the wormwood used to make it, which presides over even the anise aromas in a good bottle. This may be due to the distillation techniques, but is more likely due to the quality of the wormwood. This is a good absinthe to taste if you want to familiarize yourself with the unique taste of artemisia (wormwood) without too many other flavors in the mix. This style of absinthe would be my choice for a refreshing, post-dinner nightcap.
The three images above are absinthes from Switzerland whose origin is unknown. I found two of them at an absinthe bar, Die Greune Fee (read my article about drinking 14 absinthes here!), and another at a spring-fed absinthe fountain out in the woods. Travel to Val-de-Travers and you may get similar opportunities!
The absinthes below are all Swiss-made, white absinthes. Though all the absinthes below are good, my personal favorites were the ones that brought out the deep, round, woody and floral aromas of the wormwood while bringing their own special degrees of complexity to the palate. My top pick is Absinthe Suisse: Blanche Traditionelle, distilled by Oliver Matter. Mr. Matter consistently produces excellent absinthes that both stick to tradition and offer unexpected character for the discriminating palate. While this one comes at a high ABV and a high price, it is one of the best absinthes I have sampled to date. The second is La Belle Epoque, distilled by Francis Martin. Mr. Martin is another excellent distiller whose specialty seems to be the white absinthes. Everything you can taste from his distillery is certainly going to leave an impression, but the way La Belle Epoque brings forth the artemisia essence with artful tact and intensity makes this one stand out from all the rest.
The others that are also very good are pictured below. I'm not going to lead you astray by putting a bad absinthe on here, no, no, no. I personally preferred some over others, but everyone's taste is different, so here are some other exceptional Suisse La Bleue absinthes:
From Distillerie Celle A Guilloud: Fee Verte, a traditional absinthe blanche, and Guilloudtine, stronger and more complex than the former. The distiller, Mr. Matthey, loves his craft and has no interest in growing his distillery to be any larger than its current state, so you will either have to contact him individually or go visit the distillery in order to get a bottle (or go through me!). I am currently translating his website to English.
From Distillerie La Valote Martin: Fee Verte (which is actually blanche, not verte), Nirvana, Aphrodite, l'Originale. As I mentioned above, Francis Martin is an outstanding distiller who specializes in absinthe blanche, and every one of these has its own unique characteristics worth the taste. My third pick was l'Originale: true to the spirit of the valley.
From Distillerie La P'tite: Green Velvet (actually white, not green), and Absinth'love69. Distiller Gaudentia Persoz is the only female distiller I know of, and she does an outstanding job with her absinthe. I personally prefer her Absinthe Verte varieties. The Absinth'love69 struck me as a bit strident, but I think that had something to do with drinking a cup of milky-white liquid that came from a bottle with an ejaculating penis on the label. I told this to Ms. Persoz and she laughed, as if her master plan was working out perfectly.
From Distillerie La Valote Bovet: Nostalgie, an excellent traditional white, and La Chat. Willy Bovet, though I did not have the pleasure of meeting him, is among the top respected small-scale producers in Val-de-Travers. Nostalgie makes my top choice list for absinthe blanche. The girl on the label of Nostalgie is taken from a famous absinthe poster from the Paris absinthe boom and the emerging of the art nouveau style, and the throwback Chat Noir on the label of La Chat hearkens back to the famed cabaret of Montmartre, which was frequented by famous writers and painters of the time. With marketing roots in French art history it would seem as if Mr. Bovet is a little confused, but he still makes an excellent Swiss-style absinthe.
Swiss Verte, La Fée Verte, Absinthe Verte
Swiss Verte is my personal favorite style of absinthe. While the recipes vary widely among distillers and labels, you can generalize a Swiss verte as having a herbal nose followed by the long, round aftertaste of artemisia. You will also experience a very subtle yet distinct bitterness that grabs the corners of your tongue like a sweet grapefruit. Swiss verte absinthes are what you would classify as "traditional," based on the powerful simplicity that emphasizes the taste of artemisia while providing borderline subconscious notes of different aromas and herbal combinations, all of which typically come together in a single, rounded taste in a good bottle. Some people prefer to break out their absinthe spoons and take a strong verte with sugar. I prefer to taste the full array of flavors in absinthe verte without sugar. Find which one you prefer. Again, if you have no idea what I'm talking about with spoons and sugar, read Step by Step: How to Drink Absinthe...the Traditional Way.
The top two Swiss verte absinthes that I tried were chosen based on both the harmony and individuality of the overall flavor. Also taken into account is the balance of complexity with closeness to tradition. My top pick is Green Velvet by Gaudentia Persoz at Distillerie La P'tite (distillery only...sorry!). As you take a sip of a well-mixed glass, the flavor will make you pause to consider the beauty of things in life, like those simple moments walking in the woods when you just have to close your eyes, smile, breathe deep, and take it all in. The wash is smooth, and the afterglow is like alpine wildflowers with that stone fruit bitterness. My second pick is Mansinthe, designed by Marilyn Manson and distilled by Oliver Matter ($44.65/700mL). I haven't had the chance to speak with Marilyn Manson about this absinthe, but I imagine his contributions are the artwork on the label, as well as ensuring the ABV is 66.6%. In any case, this absinthe tastes remarkably close to a pre-ban verte, boasting the artemesia aromas while creating a seamless blend of background flavors that add to the overall impression as yellow leaves on a green tree in the first days of autumn. In the case of both these bottles, I like the designs because, instead of holding on to some sort of historical throwback for their marketing, they are creating a new, modern image for absinthe, and this is where the green fairy is going to find her future.
From Distillerie Artemisia Bugnon: Angelique, and Butterfly. Both are tasty and traditional. Butterfly stands out to me because Butterfly Absinthe is the name on the label of the only known surviving bottle of pre-ban absinthe in the United States. I have to say, I was a little disgruntled that Swiss distiller Claude-Alain had a trademark on American history, but I just learned that the original trademark owner approached Claude-Alain and asked him to produce the original pre-ban recipe because of Switzerland's 'superior products.' In fact it is a very good product that reminds us that, in fact, even the US had a fling with the green fairy once upon a time.
From Distillerie Guilloud: La Chanvriere a Guilloud (distillery only), which is nostalgic yet nontraditional because it is hemp-infused. There is actually no THC in this bottle, but the image on the label would make you think there was. The current social perspective on absinthe lends itself to the drug culture. While this isn't the best thing for the future of the green fairy, it's a great marketing trend for distillers to capitalize on. La Chanvriere tastes good and the hemp further smooths out the flavors.
From La Valote Martin: Absinthe Sade. Straightforward and traditional - a fantastic representation of Swiss verte by master distiller Martin.
From Distillerie La P'tite: la Valdera Verte. Especially bitter - some extra seasoning for the already seasoned palate. Bold and polarizing, as the best things usually are. Made by Ms. Gaudentia Persoz.
From Oliver Matter: Absinthe Duplais. Typical Oliver Matter creation at its finest. A strong kick and a smooth finish very similar to Mansinthe.
While the Swiss stick to tradition, the French tend toward a different approach in absinthe making, which is marked by spicier and more complex absinthes that deviate from the mostly artemisia-based Swis recipes. Because French absinthe has a lower limit on the amount of wormwood that can be used in their recipes, the emphasis in flavor is normally on anise and other botanicals.
It's hard to lump "French absinthe" into a single category, so I can't rightly give a favorite. I'll give you my top picks in bold along with the reasons I picked them.
From Distillerie GUY: Francois Guy, Magie Verte, La Pontisalienne, and Garcon une Verte. Francois Guy is the fourth generation owner of the distillery, and is the man responsible for absinthe becoming legal in France, so the absinthe Francois Guy is made in his name. This uses the same recipe as his great grandfather used in the pre-ban era, minus a slight amount of wormwood. Francois Guy is my favorite traditional French absinthe verte and the closest you will get to a Swiss absinthe. The other absinthes listed above and pictured below are limited edition recipes. Distillerie GUY produces a different absinthe every year, experimenting with different herbs and interesting methods such as aging the absinthe in wine barrels. Unfortunately for the buyer, these limited editions are hard to find outside of the distiller himself or an enthusiastic collector (such as myself :)).
From Les Fils d'Emile Pernot: Absinthe Pontarlier, Vieux Pontarlier, and Sauvage (79eu/700mL). First, take into account that Les Fils d'Emile Pernot was the world's first commercial absinthe distillery, allegedly inheriting its recipe from Dr. Ordinaire himself. They have over a dozen different absinthes in production, each of which is exceptional in its own merit. Absinthe Pontarlier is an excellent white absinthe. I like Vieux Pontarlier because it is made from wine-based spirits, which is how absinthe was produced all the way up to about 1860-1870, depending. It's a bit of a trip back in time. Sauvage by Pernot is my overall favorite absinthe verte due to the complex merging of its very strong botanical aromas. It is anything but traditional. Sauvage, meaning wild in French, is named after the wild harvested wormwood used to make this absinthe. The overall impression is also powerful and untamed.
From Jade Liqueurs: Espirit Edouard (65eu/700mL), Jade Terminus (65eu/700mL), and Jade 1901 (65eu/700mL). The distiller at Jade Liqueurs is an American expat named Ted Breaux who produces absinthe out of Samur, France in the Val Loire, a big region for French wine production. This is the perfect spot for him because all of his absinthes are made from wine eau-de-vie, sourced from the Loire valley. Like I mentioned earlier, wine spirits is the original base for absinthe, so Broux and his strong historical ties stay true to their brand and produce some extremely high quality absinthe. My favorite wine-based absinthe is Espirit Edouard by Jade Liqueurs, distilled by Ted Broux. The wine base is strong without being strident or overpowering as many lower-quality attempts are. The flavor of the wormwood comes across clearly in the aftertaste, as do many more subtleties that tantalize the tastebuds. A very special liqueur indeed.
From Absintherie Bourbonnaise: Verte de Vichy (38eu/500mL) and Napoleon III (47eu/700mL). Distiller Philippe Fumoux has created five absinthes, each in the image of a historical point in French history. Napoleon III stays true to the Belle Epoque stlye verte, while Verte de Vichy offers some different tastes, including notes of saffron and cloves - a toast to the future of absinthe. These are my favorite bottles because the lid is a one-ounce shot for measuring your drinks! These are also the best-accomplished deviations from traditional absinthe. You can tell these recipes go light on the anise because you have to pour very slowly and delicately to get the absinthes to louche whatsoever. Some anise-haters might find this to be their favorite absinthe distillery! regardless of preference, a proper pour will yield a spicy and delicious absinthe to sip.
From Distillerie Awen Nature: Absinthe Fine Blanche and Absinthe Rouge. These absinthes come from Rennes, a city near the north coast of France. The Absinthe Blanche is a powerful drink that, true to the French way, is spicier and more complex than most. Very well executed, and there are not so many French whites out there, so this one is worth a try! I would describe the Absinthe Rouge with one word: bad. This drink might be a good mixer and one would not notice the bad taste if they used it as a wash in a sazarac, but my rules for tasting stick to tradition, and this one just tasted thin and lacking of any character.
From Distilleries et Domaines de Provence (France): Absente. This is the one that comes in the cardboard packaging featuring Vincent Van Gogh on the front. Van Gogh, a romantic and ardent absinthe drinker, would scoff at the stuff. The second ingredient on the back of the bottle is sugar, and it's actually made with plant essences rather than real plants, then colored with vibrant green food coloring. The webesite boasts the "tradition" of setting the sugar cube on fire and serving over crushed ice, or even drinking it neat. Whatever you do, don't let this hallmark absinthe brand of today be your only absinthe experience because it will leave a bad taste in your mouth, like a king size package of Twizzlers at the movie theatre.
From Fischer Schnaps (Austria): Absinthe Mata Hari ($43.99/750mL). The website for this absinthe claims to be derived from an original absinthe recipe dating back to 1881, but then they go on to say that they reduced the amount of anise in it (another source says they removed anise entirely) and redesigned the recipe to be a "mixable" absinthe. The back of the bottle says it would go good with cranberry juice, and I can see this because the dominating taste is vodka. This was not good to drink traditionally, and unfortunately it's the only impression I have of Austrian absinthe. Sorry, Austria.
In the steep hills of Montmartre, dreams have both lived and died. It's a community of struggling artists and it always has been. Some characteristics of the Parisian neighborhood (besides the steep hills) are the graffiti, the sex shops which are all boasting their new product: the Eiffel Tower dildo, the dirty sidewalks lined with cigarette butts and empty beer bottles, the vast number of bars and live sex theaters, and the cliques of artists selling sketches and paintings on the street. I feel strangely at home here, comforted by the fact that nobody is going to judge me for ordering coffee before my meal, and that Montmartre is still just like it was in 1900. It was here that artists like Van Gogh came to live, drink, and wallow in their own filth before inevitably ruining themselves like so many great artists before them.
Van Gogh painted this in Montmartre, depicting the night life of Paris in which there is always a "night with no black." Van Gogh drank absinthe and painted incessantly on the streets of Montmartre, eventually driving himself to shooting himself in the stomach and dying a slow and painful death at age 37 in 1890. On the subject of his cafe paintings such as Cafe Terrace at Night, pictured above, Van Gogh said he has "tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime."
Contrast this with the drinking life of the bourgeoisie around that same time, as I showed in the previous blog. Absinthe was once a drink of the wealthy, and people would drink it from crystal glasses on white tablecloths surrounded by the highest contemporary art. As absinthe became cheaper, it began to migrate from the purple velvet and vaulted ceilings of the Latin Quarter and Grand Rue cafes to the rat-infested cobblestone streets of Montmartre.
Before riding the tube to Montmartre, Marie-Claude and I first visited a couple more cafes from the Bourgeoisie circles. This really added to the contrast between here and Montmartre.
This is how the cafe looked when it opened in 1903. It was remodeled in the 30s and all the decor was covered up. Later, someone uncovered the beautiful walls and artwork and "retromodeled" it into what is is today. Unfortunately, like all the other cafes, this one does not serve absinthe.
La Fermette Marbeuf
Yet another amazing cafe, and certainly worth the visit if you can reserve a table three months in advance. Judging by how full the restaurant is, they obviously have high demand haha. Notice the absinthe fountain on the bar! Too bad they don't actually have any absinthe.
Here is where we begin our move into the world of absinthe for the "commoners" like us. The first was a very large and popular restaurant called Le Bouillon Chartier, where we had a nice lunch. Notice the lights and coat racks are still the same, but it's a little more casual.
Le Bouillon Chartier
The cool thing about this restaurant is that it's full of middle-class people and families from all over the world. Back in the Belle Epoque, it was much the same. The bourgeoisie had their classy habitations, the starving artists had theirs, but this was a place for the commoners who, usually coming to visit Paris, were able to experience Paris cuisine (including absinthe) in a relaxed atmosphere. Marie-Claude looking like an angel.
This brings us to Montmartre, home to the famed Moulin Rouge. Like I mentioned earlier, this place is exactly like it was over a century ago: a place for the "alternative lifestyles." Though the streets would have been lined with cafes serving absinthe back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (as Marie-Claude writes, Paris had over 30,000 absinthe cafes as early as 1870!) there is not a single absinthe cafe that survived the ban. This is a neighborhood that stays with the times, accepting new trends as quickly and easily as it spits them out. I imagine that, after the illegalization of absinthe, cafes simply stopped serving and moved on.
The above images are places in Montmartre that used to be popular dive bar and cabaret destinations for absinthe drinkers, including the famous Chat Noir which has since become an apartment complex and is commemorated on a faded plaque. Another has been turned into an organic grocery store, and two more have become a hotel and a dive bar (that serves 120 liquors but no absinthe!).
Okay, enough of history. Now I'm more interested in where you can find absinthe in Paris today, so Marie-Claude takes me to the one place in Paris she knows of that serves over 60 different absinthes.
It's your typical punk-rock bar in 2016. Heavy metal playing over the speakers, the bartender is a tattoo-covered thug with a few facial piercings. What's 2016 about it is that the bartender is also a well-trained "mixologist" as it were, and every bottle you see in the picture above is a different type of absinthe.
Marie-Claude leaves with some goodbyes, then Maeva leaves with some goodbyes, and I am left in an empty bar on a Tuesday night with the bartender and my thoughts about the 2016 election that is going to be decided tonight some time after I fall asleep. I proceeded to drink 16 absinthes and chat with the bartender. I tried some really good absinthes at this point. The best ones, as always, were from Switzerland.
I also tried one from the Czech Republic, where absinthe rose back to power in the 1990s and where the celebrated shots and the burning of the sugar cube were invented. This was the worst absinthe I have ever tasted. Even after diluting with water and adding two sugar cubes, it still tasted like making out with the green fairy, except she is really slutty, has been smoking cigarettes all through her three-day bender and is wearing enough perfume to fumigate an apartment full of feral cats. I think the distiller would be better off switching from Eau de Vie and producing Eau de Toilette. Here's a picture of it so you can look out and dodge a bullet. Notice the art in the background :). Love it.
Think what you will, but this bar is objectively awesome, and everyone who goes to Paris should visit it and experience the new absinthe scene of Montmartre. Instead of clinging on to a history that is firstly long-gone and secondly not the bar's own, Cantada II is giving an absinthe a personality in this day and age. Now, the heavy metal and sado-masochist hellions may not be your vibe, and it doesn't need to be. But if absinthe distillers like me are to survive, we need to do things like Cantada II and redefine absinthe from "what it used to be" to "what it is now."
Les Caves du Roy
Van Gogh, Picasso, Lautrec, Verlaine, Cros, Baudelaire, Manet, and Hemingway all have one important thing in common: they all drank absinthe regularly in Paris. Coincidental to say the least, but what's even more surprising is that many of these men also drank together at the same absinthe cafes and even shared their ideas and inspirations with one another. I came to Paris to travel back in time and uncover the cafes of the Belle Époque where the "greats" drank, painted, wrote, and discussed their work. Marie-Claude Delahaye is an intrepid adventurer as well as one of the world's most knowledgeable absinthe historians and my tour guide for this urban adventure. She has studied absinthe for 35 years and has written 25 books on the subject, but she has never been on a tour of the old absinthe cafes of Paris. Here are some photos and little blurbs of us discovering the cafes together. This is day 1 of a two day shindig.
La Train Bleu, 1905
This restaurant in the Parisian train station, Gare de Lyon, is named after an expensive overnight train that went all the way to Rome. Popular with the wealthy bourgeoisie, absinthe was consumed here as well as on the train. The ornate interior displays paintings depicting every destination accessible from this train station. Marie-Claude: every bit as elegant as the interior of this incredibly beautiful cafe. As you can see, Parisian "cafes" are a little different than the neighborhood coffee shops most of us in the states are used to!
This cafe, pictured above, was the favorite haunt of writer Paul Verlaine. The concierge at the door informed us that it was also frequented by much more famous people such as Marie Antoinette. Marie-Claude said we weren't interested (ha!) and he showed us Verlaine's favorite seat by the window.
Another favorite of writers such as Ernest Hemmingway, Brasserie Lipp resides in the heart of the St. Germain district, also known as the Latin Quarter. With the island-like flora decorating the tiled walls, I'm not surprised that Hemmingway, who loved Cuba and Key West, felt at home here.
Café de Flore
Marie-Claude is leading me and our translator, Maeva, around with the energy of a kid at Disney World. Pleased as can be, she brings us to one of the more famous cafes in Paris: Cafe de Flore. This cafe was most famous for the writers it harbored: writers such as Wilde, Hemmingway, Poe, Cros, and Baudelaire. The cafe is large and is still full of hard-working writers clicking away at their laptop keyboards. The coolest part about the Cafe de Flore is that it still supports the literary community. Every year, it hosts an award ceremony for the greatest writing accomplishments in Paris that year.
Les Deaux Magots
For those whose initial reaction was anything like mine, "magots" in French does not mean "magots" in English. It is actually a species of old world monkey that, in English, we call macaques, so the name of the cafe is "The Two Macaques." This cafe is full of original furniture and seating arrangements, which means they can place a picture of the famous person of choice behind their seat of choice. The one below is Pablo Picasso's. Below that, Marie-Claude is hoping to write her own way into the history books!
Restaurant Montparnasse 1900
It doesn't look like much to write home about from the outside, but the inside is amazingly beautiful. Almost as beautiful as our lovely translator, Maeva.
It was about this time that I began to realize that, in 1900, absinthe was not a drink for vagabonds and alcoholics. If you look at the interior of all these cafes, you can make an assessment of the type of clientele that came in to these places. They are not the dive bars that I expected them to be before we started our tour. In fact, every one of these cafes has been very open, well-lit, beautifully decorated, and all-in-all, inspiring. Perhaps the "muse" of the green fairy wasn't the drink itself, but the cafes where it was consumed! We sat down here at Montparnasse 1900 for lunch before moving on to some more historical cafes.
Even if you have not heard of the painter Amedeo Modigliani, you might recognize his art. Even though this was also the favorite haunt of Pablo Picasso, the walls of La Rotonde are adorned with Modigliani's paintings. It's actually a pretty funny story. You see, the owner of the cafe in the early 20th century had a bleeding heart for writers and starving artists, so he let them pay their tabs in paintings. Evidently, Modigliani was one of the most starving artists in the city because La Rotonde displays nothing but Modigliani art! With a contemporary like Picasso, Modigliani must have been constantly frustrated with his inability to sell paintings, but look at him now. Not a Picasso painting in sight, and all because Modigliani was forced to pay for his absinthe in artwork! I guess the lesson here is that sometimes is pays to be poor and underappreciated as long as you have passion and a little bit of skill.
With a ceiling like that, who could resist taking a selfie?
Las Closerie des Lilas
This cafe was home to Charles Cros among other famous writers who I honestly didn't know. Marie-Claude was really excited about it though! The building is enormous and wonderfully ornate with Napoleonic limestone architecture that displays the grandeur of Paris everywhere you go.
Whether marble, tile, or mosaic, every surface of this building are stone. Goes to show you what it took to stand out as a cafe in Paris in the early 20th century! The picture below on the left...mosaic. Tiny, tiny, mosaic.
La Fée Verte
At this point, some of you might be thinking, "wait, where is the absinthe?" Well, dear reader, I was thinking the exact same thing when we were going around the city visiting all these famous absinthe cafes. In fact, only two of the places above actually serves absinthe today. The first place we encountered said with a hint of irony that it was a special bottle served on request that the bartender keeps in his sleeve. The second place denied that they served absinthe at all, but there was definitely an absinthe fountain and a bottle of Pernod on the counter! I asked every place if they served absinthe and every place was the same reply: there's just no demand for it. That and absinthe is a bit taboo these days. When you order absinthe somewhere, EVERYONE looks at you and whispers to each other. It's not any different than it is here in the US.
Fortunately, there are in fact a couple of locations in Paris who serve absinthe in bountiful quantities, so we went to one to cap off our first night of cafe tours.
Here I discover what the future holds for absinthe and the green fairy by looking at the history of absinthe from the eyes of two of the world's largest and oldest authentic absinthe producers: Les Fils d'Emile Pernot and Distillerie Armand Guy. The history of absinthe in the last few blogs tells you a bit about where absinthe came from - the local herbs, the medicinal tonic, and the ancestral tradition. In the next blogs, the stories of the Parisian green hour will relay the cultural tale of how the fairy put her spell over an entire city and how this led to unprecedented paradigms of art, ideas, affluence, addiction, murder, and the eventual banishment of the green fairy herself. While Paris is the city where the green fairy roamed the streets and cast her spells, there is another side to this story that will explain how she got there, why she was omnipresent for a number of decades, and why the effect of her charm turned quickly from enlightening to devastating. This story takes place in Pontarlier, France, just across the border from Val de Travers, Switzerland, where the giants of absinthe production sounded their mighty voices. If Paris was under a spell, Pontarlier is where the magic came from. The main question driving this piece is whether absinthe is destined to rise again as a popular drink internationally, or if it will remain a niche artisan drink with a cult following. Here’s the story – decide for yourself.
First, I want to say thank you so much to all the readers - all six of you! - for taking the time to read these blog posts. I'm grateful of all the things that have come from this trip, and I'm happy to see that some people are reading what I write. Honestly I don't know who reads this (except one...hi, mom) but I am curious to know who you are and what interests you in these blogs. That would help guide me toward making them better for you, the reader, so if you feel like leaving a comment, please do. Okay, the story.
The main road between France and Switzerland is dominated by Chateau de Joux – an 11th century fortress dominating the narrow pass that snakes through the Jura Mountains. Chateau de Joux boasts its legacy as the stronghold in which black slaves held the king of France before executing him and thereby abolishing slavery. The surrounding land has seen war and peace, desperation and prosperity. Underneath gray skies, the rugged, rocky landscape feels at once both inspiring and desolate. The times have changed, but the castle has seen it all.
It was a Tuesday, and I rolled through the ominous shadow of the fort on a borrowed razor scooter, or trotinette, riding on the side of the highway and trying against all odds to look as professional as possible. The steep canyon walls of Cluse de Pontarlier eclipsed the fort as I passed directly underneath its roost, putting the chateau out of sight, but certainly not out of mind. Around the bend, I came to my destination: La Distillerie Les Fils d’Emile Pernot. In 1805, Pernot (then called Pernod, and still pronounced pear-no, and I will refer to the distillery as Pernot regardless of the time period to avoid confusion) became the world’s first commercial absinthe distillery according to modern knowledge. Despite the company changing hands several times and operating under as many names, the distillery has never quit production. In fact, production has continued in the same copper alembic stills for 110 years! I removed my backpack, changed into my “business clothes” and shoved my muddy sneakers into a plastic bag and into my backpack. One has to maintain a certain image as a professional distiller in France.
The distillery itself claims residence in the shadow of the Chateau de Joux, but it certainly has not been shadowed by another absinthe distillery in the world. Like the lofty castle, Pernot Distillery has endured the ages and seen the town of Pontarlier through its economic ebb and flow.
The tasting room is the perfect place to familiarize oneself with Pernot history (available in much greater detail on their website), which in turn is one of the best lenses through which to examine the history of absinthe. The woman helping me is very excited to have a distiller from Montana coming to learn about absinthe. Apparently I’m a first in this part of the world. The first glass she offers me is Absinthe Berthe de Joux, an historical absinthe made from red wine. The taste is unique in comparison to everything I have tried up to this point. An omnipresent layer of red grape essence surrounds the orb of anise and absinthe aromas like a planet’s atmosphere, creating a feeling of infinitely expanding space. In the early 19th century, the vineyards of France were booming and a distillery could acquire cheap wine and turn it into cognac, grappa, schnapps, etc. Red wine would be the source of alcohol for absinthe distillers until the popularization of sugar beet alcohol. History says that this is a partly business-driven phenomenon – the pursuit of lower production costs – but it was also due in part to a massive disease that threatened to put an end to French vineyards. Had it not been for the utilization of the more disease-resistant, American grape rootstock, French wine may have died out entirely. But that’s a different story.
It was during this time of disease-ridden grapes that absinthe distillers were desperate for another source of alcohol with which to make their product. Enter the sugar beet. Sugar beet alcohol was 96% ABV, neutral flavored, dirt cheap, and the “beginning of the end” for absinthe. In a nutshell, the reliable supply of neutral spirits from sugar beets lowered the production cost of absinthe, which lowered consumer prices around Europe, which led to the alcohol abuse that led to the temperance movement that eventually led to the final ban on absinthe!
Absinthe’s popularity spread further and came to be used as a fever preventative for the 170,000 French troops fighting in Algeria from 1820 to 1847. Much of Pernot’s absinthe was produced for the army. Absinthe was believed to fight off Malaria and dysentery, and the Green Fairy’s euphoric spell no doubt gave French soldiers a welcome reprieve to barracks life. As French troops trickled back into cities like Paris, so did the refreshing beverage. Absinthe became a hit in bars and bistros all over France. By 1869, more than 30,000 cabarets and cafes existed in Paris, and almost every one flicked on a green light at 5pm to signify l’Heure Verte – the Green Hour – in which people came to drink absinthe and socialize before dinner. In other words, business was booming for absinthe distillers.
Here I sample my second glass: sugar beet based like every other absinthe I’ve sampled on this trip until the previous glass. After almost a century and a half of use in absinthe, sugar beet alcohol is the current tradition. What makes this absinthe different from the rest of Pernot’s selection is the use of wild wormwood gathered from the Jura Mountains. The woman running the tasting room tells me that this one, called Sauvage (French for wild), is potent and aromatic – right up my alley. Although Sauvage retains the underlying flavors of anise and absinthe, it is anything but traditional. It creeps into your tame world like the jungle from Jumanji and inundates your senses with dozens of aromas, both beautiful and seductive. Let me tell you that this absinthe will text all of its crazy friends and bring the party right to your mouth. As I sipped I thought to myself that, if absinthe was born in Val de Travers, it was in Pontarlier that it was raised, educated, and given a personality.
The distiller comes into the tasting room and introduces himself. I grab my glass of Sauvage as he leads me to the distilling room where he is working on a recipe for a new absinthe. “What’s new about it?” I ask. “It’s a secret,” he replies. “Is it going to be green or white?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he says, smirking, “maybe red.” The distiller’s golden rule is the same as a magician’s: never reveal your secrets. The Pernot distiller was very open about operations at face value and he invited me to come back the following day to watch him mix the herbs and start a distillation. “Hell yeah,” I said. I left and discreetly changed out of my business clothes and hopped back on the trotinette to get to my next destination: Distillerie Armand Guy.
Armand Guy (pronounced Ghi) is Pernot’s ancestral rival, another one of the largest absinthe producers in the world. I was at the Armand Guy Distillery that morning and received a short tour from Pierre Guy: fifth-generation distiller in the family-owned company. Pierre is a tall, relaxed 27 year-old with a strong business background and an even stronger passion for craft distillation. Since daily operations were just starting up as I arrived at 8am, Pierre requested that I come back in the evening for an after-work pow-wow of sorts. So I did.
I left Pernot Distillery on the razor scooter and rattled three miles by highway into the small city of Pontarlier. Again I passed through the castle’s shadow, this time trying to imagine the narrow valley around me as it was in 1890 when Armand Guy first came to Pontarlier to launch his distilling business.
By the 1870s, absinthe had become a drink of the fashionable bourgeoisie. In France, it became popular to begin a meal with an aperitif, a drink to stimulate the appetite, and of the 1500 liqueurs available to the French at the time, absinthe accounted for 90% of the aperitifs drunk. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 liters of absinthe annually. Seems like a lot; however, the Green Age was yet to come. Between 1880 and 1910, when Armand Guy opened his distillery in Pontarlier, absinthe dropped dramatically in price (due to the availability of sugar beet alcohol) and became more available to the layman. By 1910, the French were consuming 36,000,000 liters of absinthe per year! It was a quintessential part of French society, curiously paralleling the peak of bohemian genius. Absinthe was thought by many to bestow creative genius upon those who drank it. Others saw it artlessly as the cheapest way to get drunk, so in fact it was for a variety of reasons that absinthe prevailed as the most ubiquitously consumed beverage in France (even ahead of wine!).
At this time, there would have been fields of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) surrounding Pontarlier, and the town itself would have been full of absinthe distilleries of varying merit. Nearly every man in the city would get up at the crack of dawn and go to work either in a distillery or in the absinthe fields. I imagine that you could have smelled Pontarlier long before you saw it because of the strong absinthe aromas. I enter the city limits and realize that, in fact, you can still smell the town quite strongly, although it is not the smell of absinthe, but rather of chocolate. Yes. Welcome to Pontarlier, where the air always smells of rich milk chocolate. As I push myself along on the scooter, I pass the source of the chocolate smell: a Nestle factory. The high gates and whitewashed walls around the premises only enhance the square, white building behind them, making it look like a former mental asylum of some sort. It may well have been – I don’t know – but I do know that this was once the site of Pernot Distillery. According to the distiller, Pernot was operating from this building in 1901 when a lightning strike ran through the metal framework and combusted several large tanks of alcohol, which combusted virtually every other product in the distillery. Because the drains of the factory fed directly into the Doubs River, the whole river was flavored with absinthe for miles downstream. The rivers of Pontarlier literally ran green with absinthe.
I continue down river to my destination, and the smell of chocolate changes to that of anise. The lights from the windows of Armand Guy Distillery are radiating into the blue of the fading twilight and the driveway is bustling with workers leaving for the day, probably exactly like it would have been over 100 years ago. Armand Guy Distillery has been operating at the same location since it opened its doors in 1890. I walked through the tiled distillation room which houses four of the most beautiful copper stills I have ever seen, then to the tasting room where, like Pierre said, there was a small host of people sipping drinks, socializing, and debriefing after a productive day. The Armand Guy tasting room is another amazing lens through which to view the history of absinthe, of the company, and of Pontarlier.
Armand Guy founded his distillery on absinthe, but his dreams quickly changed when absinthe became illegal in 1915. In fact, the ban on absinthe changed the dreams of an entire city (not unlike Detroit and the car manufacturers). Pontarlier may not be where absinthe was born, or where it was killed, but it is certainly where absinthe came to die a brutal death. As the castle stood in watch, the valley below changed. The wormwood fields went fallow, absinthe distilleries closed citywide, and many workers were left jobless. Armand Guy, determined to stay in business, had to figure out something else to produce at the distillery. What he did was genius in its simplicity: he removed wormwood from the absinthe recipe and created a new drink called Pontarlier-Anis, which became a regional favorite of the ages. Additionally, he created a separate absinthe liqueur which was legal. Pierre tells me that a local police officer discovered that the addition of the absinthe liqueur to the Pontarlier-Anis created a drink that was undeniably similar to absinthe. The story doesn’t end quite how you might think. The officer enjoyed this drink heartily and a cocktail was created in his name. Clearly, like in Val de Travers, there was some cultural resistance to the ban.
The distillery continued to come up with new products during the ban, including sapin (a fir tip liqueur) and a wide assortment of eau-de-vie. It wasn’t until Francois Guy, Pierre’s father, inherited the distillery that Distillerie Armand Guy was once again able to produce absinthe.
The first absinthe I taste is their classic absinthe titled Francois Guy, which was the first absinthe produced by the distillery following legalization. This absinthe is Francois’ namesake because he is the man who pursued for decades the legalization of absinthe in France – an accomplishment that he (and every other absinthe distiller in France) can now enjoy in his craft. Francois himself is in the tasting room debriefing with his son and the employees over some drinks. He mingles while remaining somewhat aloof, cigarette in hand, observing with a calm swagger of authority.
The taste of Absinthe Francois Guy is the most refreshing I have ever had. The flavors reside together like grasses in a meadow that blend like one flawless sea of green and a person has to get quite close to distinguish one from the others. I think that this is close to what Armand Guy’s absinthe would have tasted like before the ban. I ask Pierre if he has any old bottles left over from before absinthe was made illegal. He does not, but if he did, the taste would have been similar to Francois Guy with an additional essence of wormwood. The bottle would be over a century old and the flavors would blend perfectly, creating a creamy, floral roundness to accompany the presence of the refreshing anise meadow. There would probably be bits of old cork debris floating in the bottle too. But that’s all just speculation. Absinthe Francois Guy is not the only absinthe that has been produced at the distillery since the ban. In fact, the distillery produces a limited edition recipe every year and sells out quickly. The 2016 edition has been aged one year in wine barrels to enhance the floral essence and increase the potency of the anise aroma.
Although the absinthes produced by Distillerie Armand Guy are excellent, the drink is not as popular as it once was. While the distillery produces 500,000 liters of Pontarlier-Anis annually, it only produces 30,000 liters of absinthe. Pernot is the same way.
The group began to dwindle until only five of us remained and we had an unofficial “research and development” session. That’s when Pierre brought to the table a new product: something unprecedented to bridge the worlds of alcohol and dessert, in my mind. This product – to be released in a couple months – is not the only idea that Pierre is brewing. I can’t tell you much, but the young distiller, full of passion, looks forward to running the distillery and has big plans to share with the world. Still, the castle stands watch.
While Les Fils d’Emile Pernot and Distillerie Armand Guy are two of the largest authentic absinthe producers in the world, their production pales in comparison to days gone by. Will absinthe ever reach its former popularity? Pierre says no. Absinthe was an unprecedented drink in the late 19th century – something that people had never tasted before. While it gained popularity, competitors introduced similar liquor concepts such as Cointreau and Triple Sec. Although absinthe remained at the forefront of the cultural palate, it was banned, during which time these competitors had 100 years to build their own markets, and consumers had 100 years to become accustomed to different flavors and different habits. It is for this reason that, even if it becomes legal worldwide, absinthe will probably always remain a niche drink for people who enjoy the mysterious culture and the unique taste of Artemisia.
It has come to my attention that many people reading this have never tried absinthe before. Absinthe is above all a satisfying, delicious and refreshing drink when enjoyed properly, but it’s served unlike anything you’ve probably seen before. To be honest, there is really no “wrong way” to drink absinthe. You might run into some highbrow folk who will tell you that the spoon, the fountain, and the slow drip (explained below) are the only way to enjoy an absinthe. Not true. Tradition is one thing. Intuition is another. And enjoyment is something completely independent of the two. Tradition will help you learn the rules while intuition might help you break them, but you need a little bit of both to find a place for absinthe in your heart. Here’s your reference pamphlet for enjoying your first glass of absinthe the traditional way – modify as you see fit:
Step 1: Set aside a little time.
Absinthe is best enjoyed at a time when you can relax and enjoy yourself.
Step 2: Gather the materials.
You will need a bottle of absinthe. The best absinthe comes from France and Switzerland because they have been doing it for centuries and because their laws allow a higher thujone content than absinthe made in the US. Thujone is a molecule directly related to the flavor of wormwood – the absinthe plant. Note the traditional “absinthe glass” is heavy and inversely conical, but any glass will do. The absinthe fountain is not for absinthe, but for ice water. We’ll get into its use later. Finally, an optional piece is the absinthe spoon which is flat and slotted for the infusion of sugar into the glass if you prefer your drinks a little sweeter.
Step 3: Pour a shot’s worth of absinthe into a glass.
The fairy is in the building.
Step 4: Place glass under fountain.
At this point you can put the spoon over the mouth of the glass and place a cube of sugar on the spoon. Adjust the fountain spout so that it sends water forth at something between a slow trickle and a fast drip, dripping onto the sugar cube if you have one. What’s the difference between a slow trickle and a fast drip? It’s kind of like the difference between mostly sunny and partly cloudy.
Step 5: Observe.
Watch, wait, and converse while your glass fills. Dilute with three parts water to one part absinthe. This will yield the same alcohol level as a glass of white wine, more or less, and when you drink it, you should barely taste alcohol over the strong anise and wormwood aromas. The high proof alcohol retains a vault of flavor which is released into the solution when water is added – evident as the liquid turns from clear to foggy and then milky. That’s why a good absinthe shouldn’t be taken in a shot.
Step 6: Turn off spout, remove glass, make a toast, and enjoy.
There is no fire involved whatsoever (that’s a tradition that came from the Czech clubs of the 90s, and they weren’t even drinking the real thing!). It’s not going to make you hallucinate (this is a rumor that came from propaganda aimed at labeling absinthe as a menace to society in the early 20th century!). Absinthe is packed with a variety of flavor that will activate the taste buds of your entire tongue. You don’t need to smell it or swish it around in your mouth to get the flavor. Just drink the absinthe like you’re sipping on a glass of orange juice during breakfast.
See the blog entry “ET, go home, you’re drunk” for a description of what you will taste and how you will feel after a dozen glasses. As a generalization, a good absinthe will be sweet, refreshing, and floral, leaving a glowing aftertaste like an orb floating between the center of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. At the same time, the slight bitterness, like a sweet grapefruit, will massage the corners of your tongue by the rear molars. If all you taste is fennel and your tongue is getting numb, you haven’t added enough water.
Like I said, absinthe can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Besides being enjoyed with water, it can also take a cocktail from “ass” to “class” just by the addition of an eye-dropper’s worth. Try pouring a shot of vodka on the rocks and add a small amount of absinthe – not even one thimble full – and taste the difference. Disclaimer: will not make Nikolai taste good! If the Fantastic Four made an agreement with the Justice League, who made an agreement with the Greek Gods, who made an agreement with the Roman Gods, who made agreements with Jesus, Mohammed, Albert Einstein, Ghandi, and David Blaine to make everything in the world good, without fault, Nikolai would still taste horrible. Absinthe, on the other hand, needs no help - only that of a caring distiller.
The Swiss mountain road we drove was skinny, steep and sinuous – perfect for a BMW M3. It took us high above the wide and verdant valley, painted with the colors of autumn and still sparkling from the last night’s frost. The Swiss love their sports cars, and my asshole still hurts from all the clenching during the breakneck ride up the mountain. My guides, Ricki and Nathaniel, were bumping French electronic music and hooting around every hairpin turn, each bringing us closer to our destination. We parked at a pullout and walked a short ways through the tranquil woods in search of a hidden backcountry absinthe fountain, fed by spring water. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. All that my guides told me was that you can find these fountains, drink some absinthe, leave some coins, and be on your way. Sounds awesome, right?
Well, it was! We summited a short hill and what we found on a small plateau was a fountain – a stone structure standing solitary in the clearing of the quiet wood, dead leaves falling onto the mat of autumn foliage as the sun peeked around the hillside and announced itself through the canopy. The fountain was a stone pillar, almost twice as tall as a public mailbox, with clear, cool water streaming from a free flowing spout beneath a small wooden door. Nathaniel opened the door and pulled from a small cubby some cups and an unlabeled bottle of absinthe. You know that scene in the Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo is staying with the wood elves and he has that moment with Queen Galadriel at the fountain where she dips into the sacred water held in a stone basin and shows Frodo the future of Middle Earth in the mirror? Yeah, it was just like that. And even though there were no tall blonde Elven queens, there was a green fairy painted on the side of the fountain and another smiling from a stump.
Our breath was still visible in the air as we filled our glasses with absinthe and cool water. Twenty three of these fountains exist in the hills surrounding Val de Travers, say Ricki and Nathaniel, but nobody has been to all of them. The fountains were originally built for shepherds over a hundred years ago, and stayed in use through absinthe’s prohibition, carrying on the Val de Travers tradition. Most of them have been rebuilt at least once, and today the fountains are supported and maintained by a coalition of local distillers. It was at La P’tite Distillerie, drinking absinthe, that I met Ricki and Nathaniel, and it’s none other than the great distiller Gaudentia Persoz, maker of Green Velvet and Absinth’love 69, who supplies the absinthe for this fountain plus two more fountains located on the same hillside. Stock and maintenance are funded by donations, and it is the patrons who carry on the absinthe tradition. So we fulfilled our civic duties by sitting down at the stone picnic table for a baguette sandwich and, of course, a glass of absinthe. It was at this moment that the true nature of absinthe in Val de Travers showed itself to me like a streaker at a football game.
While the rest of the world drinks absinthe in pursuit of the novel and enigmatic experience, the people of Val de Travers simply drink it because that’s what they do. Why? Well, why do Americans drink beer when we watch football? It’s a tradition, and it’s not even a tradition that we observe with reverence – it’s just what we do. If beer was made illegal in the USA, production would not stop; it would just take place behind closed doors, and we would still drink it during the Superbowl. This is exactly what happened with absinthe in Val de Travers.
When traveling around the small valley, one will see green fairies depicted on the sides of busses, as the logo of grocery stores, on street signs, in murals, and standing like garden gnomes in every town. Absinthe is more than a drink in Val de Travers, and even more still than a tourist attraction. If you defined absinthe in a Val de Travers dictionary, it would be a drink, an action, a tradition, and an idea - a noun, verb, and adjective all at once. Val de Travers may not be the place where absinthe became famous, but it certainly is where absinthe was born, and where it will never die.
The reason I write so conclusively in this entry is because I’m moving on to a different place and a different time in the life of absinthe. I have learned a lot in Val de Travers about making traditional absinthe, which is what I came here for. Now I move to Pontarlier, France, where, in the first years of the 20th century, the entire town consisted almost solely of workers in the absinthe industry. Here remain two distilleries that survived the absinthe ban. Armand Guy Distillery and Pernod Distillery both produced absinthe in heroic quantities during the Belle Epoque, then started producing other liquors to keep their businesses thriving after absinthe was banned. Both of them have started producing absinthe again now that the ban has lifted in France, and I am fortunate enough to have an appointment tomorrow to meet with Pierre Guy (a man my age and the great, great grandson of the founder Armand Guy) to tour the distillery and the distillery’s “private museum” #oolala! More soon.
Near the North border of German-Switzerland lies the town of Solthurn, nestled on the shores of the River Aare beneath undulating bands of rocky cliffs. Solothurn is a pleasant mixture of French charm, Italian grandeur, and Swiss-German diligence, and it boasts one of the most beautiful baroque-style cathedrals in Switzerland: the Cathedral of St. Ursus
The absinthe bar in Solothurn - Die Gruene Fee (The Green Fairy) - attracts visitors from all over Europe by offering a huge selection of absinthes solely from Val de Travers. It's only a small shop in a row of other small shops. The storefront is overgrown with vines that frame one large window, and the iterior decor (though not as impressive as the cathedral) is adorned with French decadence, reminiscent of the sensual red-and-black velvet of the Moulin Rouge. It's cozy, "loungy" if you will, and very inviting. The bartender, Anna, is a young, hip woman dressed in all black, who seems happy to have me when I tell her I'm going to be here for a long time.
Drink by drink, I sat with my laptop and typed my thoughts and experiences, but it's way too much blabbering to just publish here on the blog to be honest. What is written below is mostly direct quotes from my laptop notes, but I did cut a lot out. When you read this, keep in mind it is less of an account of what the different absinthes taste like and more of an account of how one experiences absinthe. Inspired by the famous absinthe-loving writers and artists of the belle epoque, I sat down and allowed myself to succumb to the green fairy's spell.The following is an account of 13 glasses of absinthe in four hours:
I asked Anna for something special for the first glass, and she pulled out a bottle with no label. "What's it called?" I asked. "This one has not a name," she said in a musical German accent. "Where's it from?" I asked. She shrugged and shook her head. "Who made it?" I asked. Again, she shrugged and shook her head at the bottle. "Awesome, I'll have one of those." I found a small table in the corner where I brought the absinthe and the fountain, watching the clear drink fog up as the water dripped slowly into it. I sipped lightly, taking in the aromas and the bar's atmosphere. I was the only one there.
The second and third glasses allow me to relax and take in the atmosphere of the lounge. As I do so, I can't help but notice two posters on the wall across from the small booth I am sitting in. One is the most famous poster of the absinthe world: the one that announced the official ban on absinthe in Switzerland. A grinning goblin in minister's garb with a big blue cross around his neck stands over a dead woman, green, topless, and busty. The knife in her ribs has a blue cross hilt, and the goblin minister is holding a bible in one hand with the other raised to the sky pointing to a calendar reading 7 October 1910. The caption below reads "La Fin De La Fée Verte." Directly next to this poster is its antithetical recreation in which the topless, busty green fairy stands triumphantly over the dead goblin minister with her dainty foot on his chest as she raises one arm in the air, clutching a glass of absinthe outlined by the moon behind her. The caption reads, “Résurrection de la Fée Verte.” Hell yeah. I’m ready for my fourth glass.
Before the reader proceeds: I debated long and hard over this, but I decided to publish the glass-number-four journal entry verbatim with no editing here on my business' blog. If you are easily offended, skip to glass number five:
The fourth glass is called “Absinth’love 69.” The “I” is a discreet, ejaculating cock and balls pointing right at the horn of the “6,” which has white seaman dripping from it. The drink is clear, but like all the rest, turns a milky white when the water is added. Correction: the others turn a milky white. THIS one turns a jizzy white. Yet it doesn't make me uncomfortable enough to not drink it. Bottoms up. Wow. Pungent. I’m gonna add a little more water. I suppose it is 69% after all. The extra dilution is appropriate. Much better. Still a little strident, this one, but I think that’s a combination of the high alcohol and the idea in my mind that I am drinking seamen. However, if this really WAS seamen, it would be the jizz of the green fairy himself. Who says the green fairy is a woman? Fairy jizz: a crucial ingredient of an authentic absinthe, as well as the wands of Diagon Alley. "Try this one, Harry. Like your father's wand, this one contains the croak of a pond toad and the jizz of a fairy." These are the things that one contemplates when drinking absinthe. That, and the fact that I have to pee so bad I can’t keep my legs still. Okay, I’m going to chug the jizz and be done with it so we can move on. This is getting weird.
Absinth'love 69 is made by Gaudentia Persoz - the only female distiller I know of - who distills her absinthe right down the street from the famous Claude-Alain in Couvet, Val de Travers.
Like the baroque architecture of the cathedral I just visited, like the music of Bach, like the aroma of alpine flowers on cold spring mornings, the flavor of the absinthe cannot be avoided. If you allow it, it takes you and inspires a feeling of appreciation almost forcefully. It makes one take a slow, deep breath and close the eyes. Like laying into the most comfortable pillow.
The fifth glass is one of the best that I tried through the whole night. It is called l’Originale and it is distilled by Francis Martin in Boveresse, Val de Travers. The floral essence of the wormwood is so strong, and there is a separate essence like a sweet grapefruit that massages the far corners of your tongue right next to the rear molars. The sixth glass is another by Francis Martin and is the most unique of all of them, like a flash flood of roses followed by a glowing anise aftertaste like sunshine on calm water. I pick up the glass and walk over to the bar to ask Anna about the people who visit the bar. She says the bar has mostly tourists on the weekdays, but on the weekends they get mostly young people living "alternative" lifestyles. The artists, the musicians, etc. The Swiss hipster culture, and maybe even a resurgence of young bohemians embracing Parisian tradition. Anna is a painter herself. She likes the culture. She says she likes absinthe because it puts her in a state of mind that is like the influence of other alcohols, but much lighter. For her, absinthe is much softer. It makes her talk and it makes her think creatively, and, unlike other drinks which suppress her intellect and make her feel cloudy, absinthe makes her feel clear.
While sipping the seventh and eighth glasses, I notice the wide variety of people coming through the door. I see the "alternative crowd," as it were - the dreadlocks and braided beards - but there is a menagerie of people here. Even though the people here look like they lead different lifestyles, they all look like they are enjoying themselves in the same way: relaxing while sipping on drinks and making blithe conversation. I wonder, is there any wrong way to drink absinthe? I really don’t know. As long as you enjoy it. Tradition is one thing, intuition is another, but enjoyment is something completely independent from either. Tradition is the way of learning the rules. Intuition can sometimes be a way of breaking them. I think you need a little bit of both to find a place for absinthe in your heart.
While I was drinking the ninth and tenth glasses, a man with the braided beard came over and sat with me. Of course, Braided Beard and I get to talking about absinthe. "People say it makes you go crazy in France," says Braided Beard. "What do you think?" I ask. He looks at me, red in the face and smiling ear to ear. "I think good! Dadadadadadada," he sings, raising his glass and doing a little jig. Braided Beard kept asking me to go for a walk and smoke a joint with him, but I had to turn down the offer. As lame and perhaps even addiction-driven as it sounds, I traveled thousands of miles to drink absinthe and write about it, so I'd rather stay and drink.
The eleventh glass was the other "best of the night": and absinthe called Green Velvet, made by Gaudentia Persoz at La P'tite Distillerie who also makes Absinth'love 69, which I personally don't think is nearly as good. Might be the awkward undertones. But the Green Velvet has a presence, at once weighty and buoyant, that makes one take a deep breath and contemplate the greater reasons of being. John Lennon could have been drinking this absinthe when he wrote Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. "Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies."
The twelfth and thirteenth glasses of absinthe carried me over the threshold into the absinthe realm. The world suddenly assumed a luminescent iridescence. A brightness to be sure. A loving gloss laid thin over the picture received in my eye. If this absinthe bar were Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, these glasses would be like jumping into the chocolate river with the oompa loompas. But I have a train to catch and can't help but think about leaving. I notice that, since I'm thinking about leaving, I don’t enjoy the absinthe as much! I wrote that this phenomenon "lets me know that absinthe and time are parallel beings. They exist on the same 'level,' as in 'get on my level, bro.'" The "absinthe high" is not simply the result of a dose of some substance, like people believe it to be, like eating magic mushrooms or something of the kind. It's more of a pleasant state reached through the slow appreciation of a delectable and refreshing beverage. Like Anna said, the feeling is light, outgoing, and creative. I'd love to stay and enjoy more absinthes, but I have a train to catch, not to mention I tried over three quarters of the absinthes on the menu. I pay for my drinks and a bottle of La Belle Epoque by Francis Martin and skedaddle.
I wrote this on the late night train ride: "Sleepy. Absinthe can illicit every single one of the seven dwarves from a drinker. Every one except Bashful! Right now I'm Sleepy.
I started this journey in Switzerland for two reasons: firstly because, over 400 years ago, it was here in the foothills of the Swiss alps overlooking Lake Neuchâtel where the drink that we know as absinthe originated. Secondly, because the people in Val de Travers (Travers Valley) have never stopped making it, even after it was written in the Swiss constitution that the production of absinthe would result in certain imprisonment. Why? Well, that's partially what came to find out.
I've been in Val de Travers for 5 days now, trying to live on a dime (for travelers aspiring to journey to Switzerland, don't expect to do it on the cheap!). It's been foggy and rainy since I've been here, appropriately representative of the shroud of mystery surrounding this seductive drink we call absinthe. I've been able to talk to the locals and the pros, the connoisseurs, scientists and eccentrics about absinthe, motivated by questions like "is absinthe actually dangerous?" "What makes absinthe different from other drinks?" "Why do you make absinthe?" I've also learned the rituals that come with consuming the drink "properly" (a local distiller would scoff at a Manhattan) and yes, I have discovered what "absinthe drunk" really is. Come and climb the ladder with me!
A Short History
The first known recipe of absinthe was actually a medicine. Back in 18th century rural Switzerland, homemade herbal remedies were the go-to, and alcohol was the latest and greatest way to extract essential oils from the herbs (the internet is replete with information if you're interested in creating your own herbal extracts with everclear). In fact, high proof spirits were widely thought to be the healthiest thing a person could consume. Modern alcohol names like aqua vitae, eau-de-vie, and whiskey are all very old terms that can be roughly translated to "water of life." In Val de Travers, locals used native herbs such as the infamous wormwood to make a drink that aided digestion. The Latin name for wormwood is Artemisia absinthium, and thus the name "absinthe" was given to this herbal tonic.
Enter Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, who discovered the recipe for absinthe in 1792 and started producing and selling it around Val de Travers, marketing it as a panacea, or a cure-all. Picture a salesman coming into town on his horse drawn wagon full of bottles. The people of the town gather around and the salesman demonstrates how one sip of this amazing potion can make a cripple jump out of this chair and start dancing. He pours the potion into the ear of a deaf person and suddenly the patient can hear again. Everyone in the town rushes forward to buy a bottle. That is how absinthe was first sold, or at least that is the first record of it being bottled and sold as "absinthe." The name and the potion both stuck around, and so did the tradition of drinking a small portion of absinthe every so often to maintain youth and vitality. It's ironic that this drink would eventually induce social panic and be the scapegoat explanation for the debasement of modern society and the murder of a in innocent woman and three children.
After a few centuries of producing absinthe and developing its craft and the rituals entailed in its consumption, the rural peoples of Val de Travers were both surprised and aghast when absinthe was declared illegal in Switzerland. It was the result of a long effort of the temperance society to ban alcohol altogether. However, the forthright cause of absinthe's prohibition was an incident that took place on 28 August 1905 in Switzerland when a man named Jean Lanfray came home from work in a drunken rage and murdered his pregnant wife and two children. Pretty fucked up. Jean Lanfray had consumed absinthe that day, and though it was later revealed by police that he had consumed legendary amounts of wine and liquor and only two glasses of absinthe, this event led directly to an international ban on absinthe.
The ban didn't stop the people of Val de Travers from continuing their time-honored tradition. That would almost be like banning tea in Japan. "In Val de Travers, we never stopped the production of absinthe," says Calude-Alain Bugnon, owner and operator of Artemisia Distillerie: the world's first legal absinthe distillery to appear after the 93 year ban on absinthe was lifted. Claude-Alain multitasks around the modest distillery with a full brimmed felt hat and a blue lab coat to compliment his outstandingly Swiss handlebar mustache.
As I lend him a hand with cleanup, he pours me sample after sample while explaining the role that absinthe plays in the society of Val de Travers. He tells me in his thick French accent that the area boasts 70 legal absinthe distilleries and at least 200 clandestine absinthe moonshiners. Basically Val de Travers is the West Virginia of Switzerland. 270 absinthe stills is a lot for a region of 12,000 people. Most American readers can relate to the vast number of breweries operating in Portland, Oregon. 69 breweries is a LOT for a city of 600,000, but to reach the ratio of absinthe producers per capita in Val de Travers, Portland would have 13,500 beer producers!
I'm taking all this in while I'm also taking in my third glass of absinthe, watching Claude-Alain pour me a fourth. He places the heavy crystal absinthe glass under the spout of a handmade ceramic fountain and turns the knob just enough to allow the ice water to flow at something between a drip and a trickle. There is no sugar, there is no fire. According to Calude-Alain those are all bastardized rituals that detract from the appreciation of a product of the highest quality. The absinthe we are sampling now is something he does not sell in bottles at the distillery - the "high thujone recipe," with extra wormwood essence. This drink is clear in color rather than the hallmark green (this comes from the chlorophyll in mint and lemon balm leaves after distillation), but as the water enters the absinthe, the liquid begins to change color, like a thick fog creeping into the cobbled alleyways of Paris after the sun goes down. By the time the drink is diluted to the desired strength (11% ABV according to Claude-Alain) it looks more like a glass of skim milk than a glass of hard liquor. Claude-Alain closes the trickling spout and extends the glass my way, so I quickly down the absinthe I have been nursing and reach out for the next sample.
The glass docks into my hand and I ask Claude-Alain, "Do you think absinthe is dangerous?"
"The only thing you should avoid is drink too fast," he says. "People really go in a strange way if they drink too fast absinthe." Holding the freshly poured glass of absinthe in my hand, I don't say anything, but try to make eye contact with him. He doesn't notice, and rushes to grab something from the next room. My friend and host Daniel looks at me and we raise our glasses. Santé.
Sitting in a foggy valley drinking a foggy drink, I can't help but notice that each sip clears the fog from my mind. The absinthe drinker begins to see the world as it really is after a few glasses. The "danger" that I see, as with other alcohol, is after too many sips down the hatch, one begins to see the world as they prefer to see it. But the locals don't drink heroic amounts of absinthe. One glass before dinner every now and then to relax and converse with friends and family. This is particular to Val de Travers. Just a few miles outside the valley there are people who have literally never had a sip of absinthe. Drinking absinthe is just what people do in Val de Travers, so it didn't make any sense for them to change this integral part of their culture just because the government told them it was illegal. Concealed by the fog for almost a century, they were able to hone the craft in a way that only moonshiners can do, and now that the ban has lifted, we are seeing absinthe of higher quality than ever before. Don't worry, I'm bringing back some bottles for a sample party and you're all invited.
When I get to Paris in November, I'll have the chance to tour the absinthe cafes of old and new and get insights to the effects that the green fairy had on famous artists and writers of the "green age" - the age of absinthe. My tour guide will be Marie-Claude Delahaye, who wrote the absinthe bible. Stoked! Between now and then...well, I'll just have to keep you in the loop.
I'm gonna have to leave you here. I have visited other distilleries and drank a lot more absinthe, but it will make more sense if I post that in another entry with a different topic. This one was way too long anyways. I'd really appreciate your feedback on this post so I can improve the next ones!
Welcome to the Atlas Distillery blog! Oops! Sorry, I've been sued by Atlas Brew Works in Washington, D.C., so now I have to change my name. The new name shall be Thieves Den Distillery, and the website will be published by the end of the week. The business plan has not changed whatsoever - just the name.
On this blog you will read about one man's journey through France and Switzerland in pursuit of the true history of Absinthe: the emerald cordial that was illegalized worldwide for almost 100 years. The history is ripe with accounts of seduction and murder, secrets and deceit, war and peace, the creation of an era and the downfall of an empire. The reader would best take this blog in the same manner that the reader ought to take a glass of the green fairy herself: with a teaspoon of sugar and an air of caution.
Over the next month, Lee Roy will be visiting the villages and distilleries in the Franco-Swiss Alps where absinthe was born, then following the story north to Paris, where absinthe would flourish as Europe's most popular drink and a national symbol of art and affluence, before meeting its demise where an innocent family met theirs, right back in northern Switzerland. Along the way he'll be picking up tips from old experts on how to make the world's best absinthe.
Making the journey will entail tours of age-old distilleries, pictures of stunning scenery, and cocktail hour spent with some of the world's great artists such as Picasso and Van Gogh. It's going to be a fun ride and, who knows, Lee Roy may even let us in on some absinthe-making secrets.
Stay tuned for an itinerary, interactive map, and plenty of stories and pictures! Thank you so much for supporting Atlas Distillery! Oops, darn it, I mean thanks for supporting Thieves Den Distillery! Future visitors will be redirected to our new site.
Lee Roy is a dreamer and a simpleton who wants to produce the finest liquors in the world at his distillery in Missoula, Montana. He is traveling via couchsurfing and AirBnB with his "business backpack" to the places where the best liquors in the world come from in order to learn the craft.