When she arrived in the Val de Travers 30 years ago, Gaudentia Persoz did not imagine that she would become a distiller of absinthe. Today she is the only woman in Switzerland to produce this drink that is now legal again after years of prohibition.
The winter night has sprinkled the forest with drops of ice. At daybreak, the tree branches form thickets of lacy white on either side of the road. The morning mist has not yet lifted, and the scene is like something out of a fairytale. It is also very cold. No wonder – the neighbouring valley is the Brévine, known as “the Swiss Siberia”.
This remote and wild beauty did not appeal much to Gaudentia Persoz at first. Born in 1967 between the lakes of Zurich and Walenstadt, she grew up in a prettier landscape.
“There you have an unobstructed view of the Alps and the plains. It’s magnificent. You have everything: the mountains, the lakes, the meadows that bloom in the spring… whereas here the view is limited, Spring is short, and there are mostly fir trees.”
When she arrived in this valley, she was 16. She had come to learn French, and she did not imagine for a moment that she was coming for good. Thirty years later, she still has a trace of an accent that reveals her origins. But she has rooted herself in this landscape where she learned all about “life, love… and absinthe”.
Absinthe, nicknamed “the green fairy”, celebrated as the poet’s muse or damned as the devil’s brew, was the alcoholic drink of choice over a large part of the French-speaking world throughout the 19th century.
Then at the beginning of the 20th, it succumbed to the concerted attacks of temperance leagues and wine producers, who succeeded in getting it banned. The reason for the ban was thujone, the active ingredient of the absinthe plant, which had become notorious as the substance “that makes men mad”.
Whereas in France distillers invented all sorts of legal substitutes – Pastis is still the main one – in the Swiss part of the Jura mountains people went on producing and drinking real absinthe under the table, as it were.
As soon as she arrived in Val de Travers, young Gaudentia noticed mysterious comings and goings.
“I was an au pair girl in a restaurant and butcher’s shop. I used to see customers sneaking into the little room behind the kitchen with a bottle. It was a complete mystery to me but, to be sure, they weren’t going to tell a 16-year-old that it was absinthe. It was illegal, and I was a minor, so they kept it secret.”
It took a year before she finally found out. It did not repel her, quite to the contrary. “When you are young, you like doing things that are not allowed. It felt great to be in on the secret. It meant too that I was accepted.”
Several years on, settled in Couvet and maried to Jean-Michel, Gaudentia got the idea of becoming a distiller herself.
It so happens that Couvet is thought to be the birthplace of absinthe and that Lucie Persoz, her husband’s grandmother, was a one-time producer who had “gone straight”. She had been nabbed with several other people in a big raid at the end of the 1960s, so she did not want younger family members to run those kinds of risks.
“We kept pestering her about it, and finally she gave in,” recalls Gaudentia. “She told us her formula and her techniques.”
The young couple started slowly, more driven by interest in the product than by hope of gain. Production remained limited and the still was discreetly tucked away down in the cellar. They worked mostly at night, for fear of the tell-tale smells that might get out around the neighbourhood, and they sold it only to trusted friends and family members. It was a risky business.
“We were lucky,” Gaudentia concedes. “But I will always remember the time the police raided some neighbours of ours. At about 11 o’clock, I saw a police car stopped on the street, then another one, then three, then four. I really started to shake like a leaf, till I realised they weren’t after us.”
“It was just three months before the end of prohibition, but they still were hit with a 60,000 franc fine! It was said that someone had turned them in, and the police had to take action.”
Product goes global
On March 1, 2005, after 96 years of prohibition, absinthe was legal again in Switzerland. Gaudentia decided to give up her occupation as a masseuse and reflexologist to devote her time completely to her distillery – and all that it involved.
“All we knew was how to distill. We had to learn about everything else, getting bottles, stoppers and caps, making labels, creating a brand, setting up a sales network, and of course not forgetting all the paperwork… but I leave that to my husband and the accountant.”
In the space of a few years, the little business has prospered and has expanded its product range. The major part of production is exported throughout the world. Outside Europe, Gaudentia’s mountain dew is sold under the name Green Velvet, in a bottle more reminiscent of vodka than absinthe.
Has today’s absinthe lost the magic aura of yesteryear, as Gaudentia has often heard said? “It’s lost the attraction of forbidden fruit, that’s for sure. But on the other hand, the quality is better”, she says.
And what about that terrible thujone stuff? “When it was legalised, the federal alcohol authority took a sample from every producer to measure the thujone content. None of the [formerly] illicit stills were found to be exceeding the rate authorised.”
This rate means, according to a study by a French doctor, that you would have to drink 60 glasses of absinthe before the substance would start to be a neurotoxin.
“Try drinking 60 glasses of any alcohol, and it won’t do you much good either. I explain that to groups that come to visit the distillery, because there are still a lot of prejudices and mistaken ideas,” notes Gaudentia.
For good measure, she never fails to remind visitors that “abuse of alcohol is always dangerous”.