Absinthe – forbidden and rediscovered

“Mon Dieu” – let’s face it – many things just sound better in French, more elegant, downright mysterious and slightly wicked. Absinthe, in German Absinth is such a word. This name carries the taste of the forbidden. Somehow everyone has heard of it. Details are often unknown. Yet it is worth taking a look at the eventful history of this drink, which translated into German simply means wormwood and conjures up associations with a herbal bitters from grandpa’s cellar bar. But with absinthe, it’s different.

Die grüne Fee – La fée verte – Absinth war das erste alkoholische Getränk, das Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts auch Frauen in der Öffentlichkeit trinken konnten, ohne zur anrüchigen Halbwelt gezählt zu werden / © Foto: Georg Berg
The green fairy – La fée verte – Absinthe was the first alcoholic beverage that women could drink in public in the mid-19th century without being counted among the disreputable demimonde / © Photo: Georg Berg

The green fairy and the bitter truth

Absinthe was surrounded by great names of the Belle Epoche, Picasso, van Gogh and Hemingway, among many others. Later, the seductive green drink with the slowly dripping cold spring and the decorated sugar spoon became a prop typical of the epoch in motion pictures such as Bram Stroker’s Dracula. In addition, a 96-year ban in France, the country where absinthe celebrated its greatest sales successes. A host of conspiracy theories, which have since been scientifically refuted, including a family tragedy in 1905 that was exploited by the media and, like a modern-day shitstorm, dealt absinthe its death blow, leading to its prohibition in Switzerland in 1910 and in France from 1915.

Auf der Route de l’Absinthe kann man die bewegte Geschichte des Absinths erwandern. In nur 48 km von Pontarlier in der Region Franche Comté bis nach Noiraigue in der Schweiz / © Foto: Georg Berg
On the Route de l’Absinthe you can hike the eventful history of absinthe. In just 48 km from Pontarlier in the Franche Comté region to Noiraigue in Switzerland / © Photo: Georg Berg

Route de l’Absinthe from Pontarlier to the Val de Travers

All the exciting details surrounding absinthe can now be traced with pleasure during leisure time. The regions that once competed in absinthe production have worked out a common route, along the route of which lie historical sites, but also distilleries that are still active today.

In Motiers im Schweizer Kanton Neuchatel steht das überaus unterhaltsame Absinth-Museum und an einigen Häuserwänden im Ort erinnern historische Plakate an die Zeit der Prohibition. Das Maison de l’Absinthe wurde in der ehemaligen Polizeistation des Ortes eröffnet. Hier hatte noch bis in die 1990er Jahre der letzte Richter für alle Angelegenheiten der Schwarzbrennerei sein Büro und einen Verhörraum / © Foto: Georg Berg
Motiers in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel is home to the thoroughly entertaining Absinthe Museum, and historic posters on some of the town’s house walls recall the Prohibition era. The Maison de l’Absinthe opened in the town’s former police station. Here, until the 1990s, the last judge for all matters of moonshine had his office and an interrogation room / © Photo: Georg Berg.

We visit the Maison de l’Absinthe in Motiers, in the Val de Travers. It was in this valley that absinthe was invented in its blend of wormwood, anise and fennel and, depending on the recipe, other herbs such as hyssop or lemon balm. In 1797, the first commercial distillery was established here. Today, a museum recalls the eventful history of absinthe. The breakthrough, however, is due to the numerous distilleries in Pontarlier, France. Enormous quantities were produced there until it was banned in 1915.

Im Val de Travers gedeiht Wermut besonders gut. Wermut, Anis und Fenchel machen den typischen Geschmack von Absinth aus. Die grüne Farbe kommt vom Chlorophyll des Wermuts sowie von anderen verwendeten Kräutern wie Ysop und Zitronenmelisse / © Foto: Georg Berg
In the Val de Travers, wormwood thrives particularly well. Wormwood, anise and fennel make up the typical taste of absinthe. The green color comes from the chlorophyll of wormwood as well as from other herbs used, such as hyssop and lemon balm / © Photo: Georg Berg

Absinthe – in ancient times it was considered a remedy

The transformation of absinthe from a remedy to an evil and wicked herb is curious. Since ancient times, the great wormwood is considered a jack-of-all-trades in the art of healing. Even then, wormwood was added to wine. Its therapeutic effect covered a wide spectrum: from a proven sleep aid, remedy for stomach complaints, rheumatism, seasickness and gout. Yes even with hair loss and worms in the ears, it is said to provide relief.

Insbesondere der Wermut verleiht dem Absinth die Bitternote. Durch die Destillation wird der hohe Bittergehalt im Wermut abgemildert. Im Museum kann man getrockneten Wermut probieren und muss schnell feststellen, dass er pur ungenießbar ist / © Foto: Georg Berg
Especially the wormwood gives the absinthe the bitter note. Through distillation, the high bitter content in wormwood is softened. In the museum, you can taste dried wormwood and quickly find out that it is undrinkable pure / © Photo: Georg Berg

The success of absinthe, the belle époque and the green hour

Absinthe became fashionable through the French soldiers in the colonial territories. Military doctors mixed absinthe into their soldiers’ often contaminated drinking water to render pathogens harmless. Those returning home continued this habit. Absinthe was consumed in the early evening hours starting at five o’clock.

Das Ende der grünen Fee. Ab 1910 in der Schweiz und 1915 in Frankreich war Absinth verboten. Doch im Untergrund blühte die Schwarzbrennerei. Auch davon erzählt eine Reise entlang der Route des Absinths von Pontalier, Franche-Comté nach Noirgaigue in der Schweiz / © Foto: Georg Berg
The end of the green fairy. From 1910 in Switzerland and 1915 in France, absinthe was banned. But in the underground, the moonshine distillery flourished. A journey along the route of absinthe from Pontalier, Franche-Comté to Noirgaigue in Switzerland also tells of this / © Photo: Georg Berg.

The artists of the Belle Epoche took up this drinking ritual, celebrated it and immortalized absinthe in their paintings and stories. From today’s perspective, it seems as if the entire elite of the European art scene staggered through the Paris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries intoxicated by absinthe. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh were among the well-known absinthe drinkers. Manet, Degas and Baudelaire literally incorporated absinthe into their art as well. Gauguin and Picasso often chose the motif of the absinthe drinker. Absinthe was the first drink that women who did not belong to the demimonde could drink in public. The herbal bitters were far less expensive than wine. The slow dilution with water from the cold spring could be drawn out over hours. A welcome reason to linger longer in the bars rather than return to cramped quarters in a big city like Paris. At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris therefore had an unheard-of density of bars and cafes.

The taste of the forbidden – the end of absinthe

The abrupt end came between 1907 and 1923 in almost all of Europe. Too many alleged absinthe addicts, a decline in morals and a good lobbying by the winemakers, who lost more and more customers to absinthe, as well as a family drama with a fatal outcome, created a negative mood on a broad level. Prohibition could no longer be stopped. But still, absinthe survived in Switzerland through moonshine distilling. In France, distilleries shifted to the production of pastis. The most famous brand became Pernod.

Die Destillerien in Pontarlier stellten nach dem Verbot von Absinth auf der Herstellung von Pastis um. Vom Erfolg der berühmtesten Marke Pernod kann auch profitieren, wer so ähnlich heißt wie Henri-Louis Pernod / © Foto: Georg Berg
The distilleries in Pontarlier switched to the production of pastis after absinthe was banned. The success of the most famous brand Pernod can also benefit those whose name is similar to Henri-Louis Pernod / © Photo: Georg Berg

Absinthe – production in times of prohibition

Especially in the Val de Travers, the moonshine distillery flourished. Everyone in town knew what it meant when the smell of anise drifted through the street. But the law of secrecy applied. In the evening hours, the absinthe couriers went from house to house, refilling their customers’ supply bottles. Under their long coats they wore hip flasks with a large capacity, adapted to the shape of their bodies.

In Hüftflaschen, die unter langen Mänteln getragen wurden, schmuggelte man Absinth von Haus zu Haus / © Foto: Georg Berg
Absinthe was smuggled from house to house in hip flasks worn under long coats / © Photo: Georg Berg

About 80 years after the ban, absinthe was allowed again in the EU – regulated. Since then, absinthe has been steadily gaining popularity again. Today it is available in a wide variety of qualities, colors and alcohol concentrations. It is very interesting that some manufacturers, Absinthe after own, old prescriptions again manufacture. It can be assumed that these products are not fundamentally different from the products of the 19th century.

Im Absinth Museum in Motiers ist diese verbotene Destillieranlage hinter einer knarzenden Zimmertür versteckt. Bei der Herstellung von Absinth werden gut getrockneter Wermut, Anis, Fenchel und weitere Kräuter in Neutralalkohol eingeweicht und anschließend destilliert. Der Alkoholgehalt des historischen Absinth lag zwischen 48 und 78 Volumenprozent Alkohol / © Foto: Georg Berg
In the Absinthe Museum in Motiers, this forbidden distillation plant is hidden behind a creaking room door. In the production of absinthe, well-dried wormwood, anise, fennel and other herbs are steeped in neutral alcohol and then distilled. The alcohol content of historical absinthe was between 48 and 78 percent alcohol by volume / © Photo: Georg Berg

Absinthe – victim of its own success

Between 1907 and 1923, absinthe was banned in just about every European country. In Pontarlier, the stronghold of production, people shifted to making pastis based on anise. The use of wormwood was prohibited. This was because the essential oil thujone contained in wormwood was blamed for harmful effects such as dizziness, hallucinations and mental and physical deterioration. Today it is scientifically proven that the many damages are rather due to the consumption of too much and too bad alcohol. Even the thujone content of the historical absinthe is said never to have been a health hazard. Rather, it was mainly the successful lobbying of the winegrowers that led to the prohibition of absinthe, as they were the losers in the absinthe boom. Because the herbal bitters were cheaper than wine.

In Portalier sind wir zu Besuch in der Destillerie Pierre Guy. Ein Familienbetrieb der seit 1890 am Ort produziert und heute wieder preisgekrönten Absinth nach einem Familienrezept herstellt. Auf der Route de l’Absinthe kann man bei Pierre Guy und anderen Destillerien auf eine Degustation und auch Besichtigung der Produktion haltmachen / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Portalier, we visited the Pierre Guy distillery. A family business that has been producing locally since 1890 and today is once again producing award-winning absinthe according to a family recipe. On the Route de l’Absinthe, you can stop at Pierre Guy and other distilleries for a tasting and also a tour of the production / © Photo: Georg Berg

The balance of bitterness and sweetness

The cold spring – the very cold water drips onto the sugar cube and through the richly decorated spoon into the glass with the room temperature alcohol. The wormwood turns a milky green color. This effect gives its name to the green hour. From five o’clock in the afternoon was the meeting point in the bars.

Im Maison de l’Absinthe wird man an einer Bar empfangen. Hier ist auch stets eine kalte Quelle im Einsatz. Früher tropfte das eiskalte Wasser mit der Geschwindigkeit von einem Tropfen pro Minute über den Zuckerwürfel und durch den Löffel in den zimmerwarmen Alkohol. Jeder Tropfen hinterlässt milchig-grüne Trübungen im Glas / © Foto: Georg Berg
At the Maison de l’Absinthe, one is welcomed at a bar. Here, a cold spring is also always in use. In the past, the ice-cold water dripped at the rate of one drop per minute over the sugar cube and through the spoon into the room-warm alcohol. Each drop leaves a milky green haze in the glass / © Photo: Georg Berg

The play of the cold spring, the tall glasses, the spoon, the discreet dosage made absinthe also a drink of the ladies. A well-dosed intoxication in times of the blossoming art nouveau. A ritual mystical and spiritual, which was played late into the night. It was transported further into society via the art scene and the first cinema films.

Absinthe in cocktails and dishes – bitter triumphs

Bitter vegetables such as cabbage and chicory are on the rise, and coffee and even tea consumption are on the rise worldwide. And vermouth, the seasoning bitters Angostura and absinthe are also playing an increasingly important role in the bar scene. The world is getting bitter! This trend has long since arrived in top gastronomy. Tart flavors mime the perfect counterpart to sweet. Bitter components strengthen the immune system and prolong the feeling of satiety. That sounds suspiciously like a superfood. In the kitchen, absinthe is ideal for flavoring stewed cocktail tomatoes, for example, or for deglazing meat that has just been fried.

Im Gespräch mit Montse Lucas. Die Spanierin führt sehr kompetent durch die vielseitige Ausstellung im Maison de Absinthe von Motiers. Hier stehen wir vor einer Tafel, die die Route des Absinth zeigt. Eine Wanderstrecke von nur 48 Kilometern verbindet das französische Pontarlier mit dem schweizerischen Noiraigue. Auf der Route liegen zahlreiche Destillerien, Brasserien, Gasthöfe, Museen, Burgen, Hotels und Restaurants, die sich dem Thema Absinth annehmen oder seine Geschichte mitgeprägt haben / © Foto: Georg Berg
In conversation with Montse Lucas. The Spaniard guides us very competently through the varied exhibition at the Maison de Absinthe in Motiers. Here we stand in front of a board showing the route of absinthe. A hiking route of only 48 kilometers connects the French Pontarlier with the Swiss Noiraigue. Along the route are numerous distilleries, brasseries, inns, museums, castles, hotels and restaurants that are dedicated to absinthe or have helped shape its history / © Photo: Georg Berg

Since absinthe has been scientifically proven free of the suspicion of a hallucinogenic effect, nothing stands in the way of its renaissance. If only Oscar Wilde had known that back then! For him, absinthe was an almost poetic drink. But from Oscar Wilde also comes the quote: “After the first glass, you see things as you would like to see them … In the end, you see things as they are, and that is the most horrible thing that can happen.”

Travel information

The Route of Absinthe
On foot along the Route de l’Absinthe

The Absinthe Museum in Motiers
Maison de l’Absinthe

International


Print publication

The crime scene: moonshine distillery, Transhelvetica #60.20, Aug. Sep. 2020, p. 92.

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The research trip was partially supported on site by the French Tourism Federation

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