Finding Fairyland on the Absinthe Trail
Absinthe has a storied past. It carries a air of mystery and a sense of lawlessness, the mere mention conjuring up scenes of dim-lit Parisian cafes, patrons with small glasses of a glowing green elixir. It represents on one hand creativity and artistry, and on the other distortion, hallucination, and madness. Depending on who you asked in the early 20th century, it could be called la fée verte (the green fairy), or the Devil in the Green Bottle. It’s a drink with a reputation, a bit of an edge, a wild side. And this means that above everything else, absinthe is sorely misunderstood.
I have romanticized absinthe since the first time I watched Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge in high school. But besides having a few flaming shots one wild night in Prague during my study abroad days, I had never actually tried to drink it properly. It instead remained in my mind’s eye, a fixture of La Belle Époque in 1920s Paris. Absinthe was inextricably linked to illicit parties at the Moulin Rouge, or to the bohemian artists and writers of the Parisian golden age - James Joyce, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Picasso, Oscar Wilde, all noted consumers of la fée verte. And because of these associations, I had always assumed that the spirit originated in France.
Not so, it turns out! In fact, absinthe comes from the French region of Switzerland, in an area called Val-de-Travers, in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. It was produced and exported here from the 18th century until 1910, when it was vilified, banned and bootlegged for nearly a century. Switzerland was the first to outlaw absinthe, followed by Holland in 1910, the U.S. in 1912, and France in 1915. One by one, absinthe was exiled from the bars of western nations.
A Geneva-based satirical magazine, Guguss, printed a (now famous) poster to protest the ban in 1910, titled “The Death of the Green Fairy.” It shows a triumphant prohibitionist, dressed as a priest, trampling on the murdered Green Fairy. The blue cross was a symbol of the powerful temperance movement, a movement against alcohol consumption. In the background, Helvetia, the female personification of Switzerland, mourns her lost liberties.
“Let me be mad, then, by all means! Mad with the madness of Absinthe, the wildest, most luxurious madness in the world! - Oscar Wilde
Absinthe was re-legalized in Switzerland in 2005, and has slowly been making it’s revival. Today, around twenty microdistilleries produce absinthe throughout Val-de-Travers, and export many different types of the spirit all over Europe.
We didn’t go looking for absinthe in Switzerland. Instead, we quite literally stumbled across it. During a hike in Val-de-Travers, Raunaq and I realized that we were smack in the middle of the “Route de l'Absinthe,” the Absinthe Trail. Absinthe in...Switzerland? This beautiful but buttoned-up country of rules and regulations is the home of the world’s most infamous liquor? We were instantly surprised - and intrigued. So, instead of ending the day with beers (our usual post-hike treat) in Noiraigue, Raunaq and I hopped on a local train to the city of Môtiers for absinthe instead. Just like people, sometimes the best way to understand a spirit is to see where it has come from.
Môtiers, in the Val-de-Travers valley, is a sleepy little town with a vibrant, if slightly crumbling, appearance. Weathered houses contrast with the fresh blooms in flower boxes, vines of English ivy crawl up the walls, and even though you are still in Switzerland, the whole town has a relaxed ease that feels decidedly French. There’s not much to do here, and if not for the absinthe, this seems like the sort of town that would be completely undiscovered by tourists.
Since the ban on absinthe was lifted in 2005, Môtiers has once again become the focal point of the fée verte. In the center of town, we found the “Maison de l’absinthe,” the Absinthe Museum and tasting room. Visitors can learn all about the history and production of absinthe in the three-story museum, but we were most interested in the absinthe tastings that were offered.
Absinthe is a distilled, highly alcoholic spirit. It’s derived from the flowers and leaves of wormwood, along with green anise, sweet fennel and other herbs and botanicals. Some versions are nearly 75% alcohol, which makes whiskey's standard of 40% (80 proof) seem almost like child’s play. If whiskey is said to put hair on your chest, absinthe will grow you a full beard.
“After the first glass [of absinthe] you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." -Oscar Wilde
But contrary to popular belief (and a reason for it’s 95-year ban), absinthe is not psychoactive. It won’t make you see shapes or colors or the legendary green fairy. The chemical that's taken all the blame for it’s hallucinogenic reputation is called thujone, which is a naturally occurring component of wormwood. Thujone is present in trace amounts in absinthe. But no matter how much absinthe you might drink, a thujone-induced delirium remains impossible; you would suffer fatal alcohol poisoning long before the thujone would kick in.
And the alleged euphoric and aphrodisiac effects you might feel? That’s simply the work of the alcohol, making you feel all warm and fuzzy. Sorry to disappoint everyone! But absinthe is unique nonetheless, with its high alcohol content, herbal flavor, special preparation - and let’s be honest, illicit reputation - setting it apart from other liquors.
At Maison de l’Absinthe, we were first taught how to properly prepare the beverage. Absinthe is incredibly strong, so in order to enjoyable drink it, it needs to be diluted with ice water dripped slowly into the liquid. For certain varieties (the famous green type, for example), you are also meant to slowly dissolve a sugar cube on top using a specialized slotted spoon and more drips of ice water. As the water is added, the absinthe will start to turn a milky, opalescence color, called the louche. “Louching” the absinthe helps release certain essences, mainly those from the anise, fennel and star anise, and the otherwise muted flavors and aromas bloom. Final preparations can vary according to taste (and tolerance!), but traditionally the final drink will contain 1 part absinthe and 3 parts water.
The one thing not to do? Set it on fire. You might have seen this in bars, when the bartender will light a liquor-soaked sugar cube on fire and drop it into the absinthe shot. This, sadly, was the way I was introduced to absinthe way back in my early 20s, and the absinthe shot burned all the way down. Not only is this just a gimmick (and possibly a fire hazard), but it completely destroys the unique flavor of absinthe. All of those subtleties and aromas and flavors, lost in a single click of a lighter. Put down the shot glass, and step away from the fire.
I repeat: Please, for the love of all things, do not light your absinthe on fire.
“A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” - Oscar Wilde
Raunaq and I chose three different absinthe types to taste, two of the colorless white (blanche or a Bleue) varieties and one green (verte) version. Blanche absinthe has become the most popular type of Swiss absinthe in the post-ban era. Personally, I find this style the most enjoyable to drink. Verte absinthe, characterized by a glowing green hue and more intense bitter flavor, is the more traditional 19th century style and generally higher in alcoholic content. This is why you need the sugar to cut the taste.
Whichever type you choose, this is not your college absinthe. if you like the taste of anise or fennel, you’ll love it. When it’s properly louched, the spirit releases an herby, floral smell and flavor that is quite nice to leisurely sip. But diluted or not, that stuff is strong. Three small tastings a piece, and both of us were a little buzzed by the end. That didn’t stop us (or maybe, it encouraged us) from taking a few bottles home, with the full intention of becoming super classy Europeans and having absinthe aperitif before dinner. Raunaq even bought a proper absinthe spoon for the louche. Our new party trick is to make everyone try an absinthe cocktail, and you can bet if you stay with us, you’ll be having one at at least some point.
The nickname for this whole area of Val-de-Travers used to be “Pays de Fees” (Fairyland), and that perfectly captures the regions’ aura. Maybe it’s something in the water, but you can almost feel the spirit of bohemia. It’s a part of Switzerland that is lush and green, with mossy forests and sparkling brooks. And if you look closely enough after an absinthe tasting or two, you might just catch a glimpse of the fairies after all.
**P.S. If you are wondering who the blonde girl is in most of the photos - it is my little sister who was in town visiting! I wrote this story last summer, but was remiss in taking any good photos. Last week, we all went back to Môtiers to take my sister tasting (and to replenish our absinthe supply). This time around, Raunaq and I came home with new types of absinthe, an water carafe with two drip spouts, AND a copy of the absinthe ban poster. We have practically made it our personal mission to re-educate the masses on absinthe. Starting with this blog post, ending with a cocktail night at our place. You are all invited!
**P.P.S. Both times we visited Môtiers, we went to the Maison de l’Absinthe. But, there is also a shop on the main square (I’m not sure of the name, but you’ll pass by it) that sells absinthe and also provides tastings at their tiny little bar. The owner is lovely and chatty, and the vibe is low-key and relaxed. Another good option if you go!
From Zurich HB: Zurich —> Neuchâtel —> Môtiers (approximately 2 hours by train)
Motiers is teeny, teeny tiny, and besides absinthe tasting, there is not to much to do in the town. There’s only one restaurant, and no real shops or stores. Here are two ways to make the most out of your Val-de-Travers adventure:
Pre-absinthe: Hike the Creux du Van. The Creux du Van is a giant, gaping hole in the middle of the Jura mountains, with sheer limestone cliffs shooting straight down 160 meters. It looks like one day, someone decided to reach down from the sky and scoop out the side of the earth. Post-hike, hop on the regional train to Môtiers to finish the day.
Post-absinthe: Visit Neuchâtel. I feel that Neuchâtel might be overlooked as just a beautiful student town on the lake with a gorgeous medieval castle, chateau, and old town - which it is - but it’s so much more! Neuchâtel has a fun, artistic vibe. Lots of street art, public art, artsy-feeling bars and parties, all with that characteristic French ease and “coolness.” It’s an atmosphere meshes perfectly after a couple absinthe tastings, too.