Last orders for absinthe ban

Absinthe has a notorious reputation (www.erowid.org) swissinfo.ch

After almost 100 years spent languishing on a list of banned products, absinthe could soon be making a comeback in Switzerland.

This content was published on September 26, 2003 - 18:12

In a week when parliament rejected proposals to decriminalise cannabis, it gave the green light to moves to lift the ban on the toxic tipple.

The Senate’s decision paves the way for a formal proposal legalising production of the drink, to be introduced into parliament next year.

Urs Klemm, deputy director of the Federal Health Office, says today’s absinthe is nowhere near as potent or as addictive as its early 20th century counterpart.

“Toxicological data and the control of production show that if absinthe is produced in the way we foresee, it really won’t harm people more than any other alcoholic beverage,” he told swissinfo.

“Everyone agrees that this ancient ban is out of date and it’s time to get rid of it,” he added.

Reputation

The heyday of the mythical liquor – made from wormwood and a variety of herbs such as fennel and anise – was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was popular with some of the most creative minds of the time, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Rimbaud and Picasso, and developed a reputation for “opening the mind and spirit, helping artists to explore their creativity”, according to Yves Kübler, boss of the Blackmint distillery in canton Neuchâtel.

But the “Green Fairy”, as it was popularly known, was also dangerously addictive and caused hallucinations, epileptic attacks and permanent nerve damage.

After a nationwide vote in 1908, the Swiss authorities changed the constitution to prohibit the production of absinthe in Switzerland.

Even though the original ban was dropped when the constitution was overhauled in 1999, absinthe remains illegal under Swiss law.

Legal loophole

Only bootleg versions have been made in Switzerland in the intervening years - until Kübler used a legal loophole in 2001 to produce a similar, less potent, variety.

The Blackmint distillery’s “Extrait d’Absinthe” is only 45 per cent alcohol – well below the original 55-75 per cent level of a century ago.

Even though his product is not recognised under Swiss law as “absinthe”, Kübler insists it is the real thing in all but name.

“Technically the plants that make up our product are identical to those used for making absinthe,” he told swissinfo.

“But as it is only 45 per cent proof, it’s not defined as absinthe under Swiss law. It’s just a question of the alcohol level and not the composition of the drink.”

Birthplace

Although there are conflicting accounts as to who invented absinthe, experts agree that it made its first recorded appearance in Switzerland in the Val de Travers region between Neuchâtel and Yverdon.

Kübler welcomes the Senate’s recommendations to legalise absinthe production and says the drink is both of historical and possible economic importance to the area.

“Switzerland doesn’t really have that many products recognised worldwide as typically Swiss,” he said. “Absinthe, though, is one of them.”

“This region is the drink’s birthplace and it has a relatively high export potential.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

One version of the origins of absinthe says that it was first discovered in around 1740 by Henriette Henriod in canton Neuchâtel.
Another account says it was invented by Dr Ordinaire - a Frenchman exiled to Switzerland for political reasons - in 1792.
After a nationwide vote in 1908, the production of absinthe was banned in Switzerland.
A modern-day version of the drink has been made legally in Switzerland since 2001.

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