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Green Fairy emerges from the shadows

Yves Kubler shows the tools of the absinthe-producing trade swissinfo.ch

It was banned for 90 years, but absinthe was still produced in canton Neuchatel. Now a legal variety is on the market - but is it really absinthe?

This content was published on January 21, 2002 - 07:50

Popularly known as the "Green Fairy", absinthe has been banned in most of Europe since before the First World War, and blamed for any number of social ills.

But in the Val de Travers, in the Jura foothills between Neuchâtel and Yverdon, this mythical drink - known locally as "The Blue" - is a source of local pride, and many clandestine distillers produce bootleg absinthe in the region.

"The tradition has been passed from father to son, and everyone has his own recipe," says Yves Kubler, the 35-year-old boss of the Blackmint distillery in Môtiers. It is Kubler, the great grandson of one of the first absinthe producers in the valley, who has put on the market the first legal wormwood-based absinthe since the ban.

Bitter herb

Absinthe is the French name for wormwood, the bitter herb that gives it its distinctive flavour. The plant has been used for medicinal purposes for many centuries, but the Val de Travers is the birthplace of modern absinthe.

Dr Ordinaire, a French doctor working in the region, created this potion in 1792. His recipe ultimately came into the hands of Henri-Louis Pernod and the mass-production of absinthe began. By the turn of the last century there were a dozen factories in the Val de Travers satisfying Europe's thirst for this potent emerald liquid.

The end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th were absinthe's heyday. With wine prices prohibitive, the population of France and French-speaking Switzerland turned to this pale green liqueur for their thrills.

Many of the greatest creative minds of the time - Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Manet, Degas, Rimbaud, Picasso, and Hemmingway - were enthusiastic consumers of absinthe. Some were inspired by it, others destroyed. Whatever, its mind-altering qualities have perhaps been overstated.

Certainly, Yves Kubler would never suggest using his new product as a way of getting "high". It is called Extrait d'Absinthe (or "Extract of Wormwood"), and is limited by the law to 45 per cent alcohol by volume, considerably lower than some bootleg absinthes.

Still banned

"It's real absinthe, but the law prevents us from saying it's absinthe," Kubler says. Three years ago, an article banning the production of absinthe was removed from the Swiss constitution. However, absinthe proper remains banned under food safety legislation.

"We've slipped through the legislative net, but simply because the law contradicts itself," Kubler told swissinfo. "The law dates from 1908, and, scientifically, things have evolved since then. There is no longer any reason to ban absinthe since it can be made in conformity with the law."

However, the authorities see things in a slightly different way: "We do not consider this to be a real absinthe," says Pierre Studer of the Federal Office of Public Health.

"What Mr Kubler has put on the market does not have the same characteristics as the products that were banned under the federal law on foodstuffs," he told swissinfo.

Thujone levels

Extrait d'Absinthe has been deemed acceptable because the alcoholic content and the levels of thujone - the active ingredient in wormwood - are within legal limits.

Thujone is found in other alcoholic drinks, such as vermouth, but also in many common herbs and over-the-counter medical treatments. But it is a toxin which, when taken in large quantities - and there were large quantities in old-style absinthe - causes convulsions and permanent neural damage.

Where the old absinthes contained up to 100 mg of thujone per litre, Kubler keeps his levels well below the 10 mg legal limit.

It was the ravages that absinthe allegedly caused among the general population that led to the Swiss authorities to ban the drink in 1910. France, under pressure from the growing temperance movement and wine-producers, followed suit five years later.

A combination of its "forbidden fruit" image and its links with Paris bohemians helped to create the myth surrounding absinthe. This cachet has once again made it a fashionable tipple in Britain, the United States and Germany.

Niche market

It is this export market that Kubler would like to tap into, even if he is aware that absinthe will never have more than a niche market. Even so, he is keen for Extrait d'Absinthe to be regarded as a far superior product to the cheap absinthe imitations currently being produced in Spain and the Czech republic.

"Frankly, they're appalling. The people who drink them don't know what a true absinthe should taste like," he says.

Modern tastes have meant Kubler has had to amend the family recipe. "Extract of Absinthe" still contains nine different herbs, including fennel and anise, which give it its distinctive pastis-like flavour. But the proportion of wormwood has been drastically reduced.

"Old-style absinthe would no longer be drinkable. It would be far too bitter. I've had to drastically reduce the amount of wormwood in the mix. Tastes have evolved, and people today want a more rounded drink," he explains.

That means the traditional rituals associated with absinthe drinking have also changed. The classic way of preparing it involved pouring cold water over a sugar cube, suspended over the spirit by means of a special slotted spoon. As the water comes into contact with the absinthe, it releases the oils contained in the spirit, turning it a milky white.

While some drink modern absinthe straight, with ice, most people still add water, just as they would to a pastis. But the milder, more approachable flavours mean the sugar is no longer necessary.

Kubler would like to see his Extrait d'Absinthe recognised and protected as a distinct geographic product, in the same way as wines and cheeses are.

by Roy Probert

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