When Toulouse and I toured Switzerland a few months ago, we spent some time wandering Altstadt Zurich, walking from Neiderdorfstrasse across the Limmat and along trendy Heinrichstrasse. There, we encountered absinthe in all its shapes and forms: from boldly displayed 1-liter bottles of 106-proof in liquor stores to absinthe-filled Swiss Frey Chocolates in a corner grocery store.
As we strolled Heinrichstrasse we had to stop at the Wein und Spezialitäten Heinrich 109 whose colorful display of absinthe products caught our attention. We peered eagerly at the window display (it was Sunday and the shop was closed); Toulouse recognized several brands (well, he’s French and he’s an artist). There was the green-labeled Willy Bovet’s Absinthe Tradition (65% vol.) with its distinct bitter taste, priced at 45 CH. Next to it was a bottle of the Bovet Absinthe Le Chat (54% vol), whose label depicted a cat contentedly drinking absinthe out of a glass. Toulouse tells me that this particular absinthe blossoms with a nice fennel aroma and a lingering wormwood background. Anise is present but not dominant. A one-liter bottle of Le Chat was selling for 69 CH. Bovet is a distiller of absinthe located in Môtiers, at the heart of Val-de-Travers.
Toulouse pointed out La Valote Lucien Fornonis (also from Val-de-Travers), an absinthe that he tells me has a slightly lighter louche (diluted with water) than the other La Valotes. The mouth-feel is nonetheless intensively herbal.
Le Bleue is clear “Blanche” absinthe bottled directly following distillation and reduction. The term la Bleue was originally used for bootleg Swiss absinthe (easier to disguise), but has become a popular term for post-ban-style Swiss absinthe in general. Verte absinthe begins as a blanche, which is then altered by the "coloring step," when a new mixture of herbs is placed into the clear distillate, providing a peridot green hue and an intense flavor. Vertes are the type of absinthe most commonly consumed in the 19th century.
Absinthe is a highly alcoholic (45–75% ABV) distilled beverage. Toulouse corrected me once already about referring to absinthe as a liqueur. It is an anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium, commonly referred to as "grande wormwood". It isn’t bottled with added sugar—and therefore classified a spirit. Absinthe is unusual though among spirits in that it is bottled at a very high proof but is normally diluted with water when consumed. It is traditionally a natural green color but can also be colorless and is commonly referred to in historical literature as "la fée verte" (the green fairy).
Absinthe grew popular through the 1840s when it was given to French troops to help treat malaria. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe with them. It became so popular that twenty years later 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte ("the green hour").
The debate continues as to whether absinthe produces effects on the human mind additional to those of alcohol, however. Some describe absinthe as “mind opening”. The experience is commonly described as a "clear-headed" feeling of inebriation—a form of "lucid drunkenness". This may arise from a combination of herbal compounds in the drink that act as stimulants and sedatives. Long term effects of low absinthe consumption in humans remain unknown, although the herbs in absinthe have both pain-killing and anti-parasitic properties.
By 1915, absinthe was banned in the United States and in most European countries except the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The prohibition of absinthe in France led to the increased popularity of pastis and ouzo, anise-flavored spirits that don’t contain wormwood. Pernod was the original absinthe. It is still distilled today, but without the wormwood. Other liqueurs that substitute for wormwood are Ricard, Hersaint, Anisette, Ouzo, and Sambuca, all with that distinct “licorice” or anise taste that people either love or hate.
A revival of absinthe began in the 1990's, when countries in the European Union began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale. Now, nearly 200 brands of absinthe are produced in a dozen countries, most notably France, Switzerland, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Commercial distillation of absinthe in the United States resumed in 2007.
In Canada, liquor laws are established by the provincial governments and restrictions on absinthe therefore vary. For instance, British Columbia and New Brunswick have no limits for thujone content; 10 mg/kg is the limit for Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario; 6-8 mg/kg for Manitoba; and 5 mg/kg for Quebec. Newfoundland and Labrador don’t sell absinthe. Okanagan Spirits in British Columbia released the “Taboo” brand in 2007, making it the first commercial absinthe made in Canada.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.