The Revival of Absinthe in Switzerland

The drink, once patronised by Hemingway and van Gogh, was banned in the country until 2005.  
Since its legalisation, cities like Solothurn (left) have seen a spurt of absinthe drinking joints (right). Photo by: Prachi Joshi (bar), Switzerland Tourism (city)
Since its legalisation, cities like Solothurn (left) have seen a spurt of absinthe drinking joints (right). Photo by: Prachi Joshi (bar), Switzerland Tourism (city)

A group of us is clustered around an absinthe fountain, an elegant glass reservoir mounted on a lamp base. It is filled with iced water and has four taps at the bottom. The bartender brings out four wide-brimmed, stemmed glasses and places them around the reservoir, one under each tap. “Isn’t absinthe green in colour”, I ask gesturing at the four glasses that are quarter filled with clear liquid. “Yes, absinthe usually has a pale green colour but it can also be colourless. It depends on the distillation process,” explains Roger Liggenstorfer, co-owner of Die Grüne Fee, an absinthe bar in Solothurn, Switzerland. He opens the taps just enough to let the iced water drip into the glasses. I watch as the clear spirit slowly turns opaque and finally a pale milky white.

The Green Fairy

When mixed with water absinthe usually takes on a cloudy appearance. Photo by: Cultura RM Exclusive/Philip Lee Harvey/Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

When mixed with water absinthe usually takes on a cloudy appearance. Photo by: Cultura RM Exclusive/Philip Lee Harvey/Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

It’s not my first brush with absinthe, but it’s certainly the first time I’m experiencing the ceremony of it. “Drinking absinthe is a social thing, it’s hardly ever drunk alone,” says Liggenstorfer. The fact that I’m sampling it in Switzerland’s first legal absinthe bar, less than 100 kilometres from the historical birthplace of the drink, adds to the charm. Though there have been references to absinthe in ancient Egyptian and Greek texts, the first clear evidence of the distilled spirit, as we know it today, dates to the 18th century. Ironically, absinthe was created as a medicinal elixir sometime in the late 1700s (though Liggenstorfer insists that it was first made in 1715). Who made it is also under dispute—some records state that it was a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland while others credit it to a pair of sisters from the same village. Couvet lies in the Val-de-Travers district of Switzerland, where wormwood grows in abundance, which possibly explains why absinthe came to be produced here.

Absinthe is a highly alcoholic distilled spirit made using several botanicals, including wormwood, green anise, sweet fennel, and other herbs. It ranges from colourless to an iridescent green depending upon the ingredients. It’s naturally coloured due to the chlorophyll released during the maceration of herbs, giving it its nickname “The Green Fairy.” The alcohol content in absinthe is quite high, ranging from 45 to 74 per cent by volume, though the spirit is usually diluted with ice and water before drinking. “You don’t put the ice directly in the absinthe. It will take up the flavours of the herbs. So we slowly add iced water to dilute the spirit,” says Liggenstorfer, as he hands me a glass.

I take in the anise aromas, but beneath the sweetness I detect its herbal complexity. It reminds me of the herby scent of the Swiss outdoors, or perhaps the green fairy is already working her magic on me. I make a mental note to pace myself lest Hemingway’s words come true: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

The Heady Days

Though absinthe originated in Switzerland, it became wildly popular in neighbouring France thanks to the French troops who got a taste of absinthe as it was used as malaria preventive. By the mid-1800s, it had become a drink of choice in France across all social classes. During the belle époque, there was even a designated time for drinking absinthe—5 p.m., which came to be known as l’heure verte (the green hour). Writers and painters, of course, took to it with fervour, and the green fairy was a muse to many an artist—Manet drank it as did Degas. The spirit is often blamed for van Gogh’s hallucinations. Hemingway featured it in many of his writings, from Death In The Afternoon to For Whom The Bell Tolls. He also invented the ‘Death in the Afternoon’ cocktail, a reckless mix of “one jigger” absinthe and iced champagne.

The Downfall

Despite having die-hard enthusiasts, the drink was banned in 1910. Photo by: David Nathan-Maister/Contributor/SSPL/Getty Images

Despite having die-hard enthusiasts, the drink was banned in 1910. Photo by: David Nathan-Maister/Contributor/SSPL/Getty Images

How did such a popular drink come to be banned? “There were many factors. The Great French Wine Blight (in the 1850s large swathes of French vineyards were destroyed due to an aphid infestation) reduced alcohol production, so people started making absinthe with poor quality alcohol that was often adulterated. Then, in the early 20th century, there was a social movement against alcohol,” explains Liggenstorfer. The French wine lobby also added fuel to the fire and tried to get absinthe banned. “In 1906, a man killed his family, and absinthe was blamed for that (turned out it was bad wine). In 1908, Switzerland held a vote; since most of the country was against it, absinthe was eventually banned in 1910,” Liggenstorfer says. Of course that didn’t deter the absinthe producers; distillation merely moved underground. Clandestine home distillers rose to the occasion, with Liggenstorfer’s grandfather Charles Henri Comte being one amongst them. “My grandfather produced (illegal) absinthe and sold it during his journeys around Jura,” Liggenstorfer says, handing me a black-and-white photo of Comte’s, a dapper gent wearing a bowler hat.

The Resurgence

The late 1990s saw a revival of absinthe in many European countries, and in Switzerland, the ban was repealed in March 2005. It’s currently the only country to have a legal definition of absinthe and strict regulations for its production. In September 2005, Liggenstorfer and two other absinthe enthusiasts opened Die Grüne Fee, a few steps from the St. Ursus Cathedral in Solothurn. The bar serves nearly 40 varieties of absinthe, all sourced from small distillation plants in Val-de-Travers.

While I nurse my drink, Liggenstorfer suggests we try the sugar variation of absinthe. He brings out a set of slotted spoons sporting elaborate designs. He balances a spoon on a fresh glass of absinthe, places a sugar cube on top, and proceeds to drip iced water on it from the fountain. The sugar cube slowly dissolves into the milky drink. I take a sip and find that the sugar accentuates the fruity, herbal notes of the absinthe, though it does take away from its mild bitterness. “There’s also the so-called Bohemian Method of drinking absinthe,” says Liggenstorfer. He demonstrates by soaking a sugar cube in absinthe, placing it on the slotted spoon, and setting it ablaze. He then slides the flaming cube in the absinthe and pours a shot of water to douse the flames. The resulting drink is stronger and I don’t find its faintly metallic tang to my taste.

I settle back into a comfy sofa, another glass of absinthe in hand. Die Grüne Fee has a distinctive salon feel to it. There’s conversation, laughter, and clinking of glasses all around—not that different from the belle époque bar of my imagination.

Essentials

Getting There Swissair has regular direct flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Zurich. Solothurn is 95 km/1 hour west of Zurich. Frequent trains run from Zurich Main Station (tickets from CHF19/Rs1,247).

Explore Solothurn is poised on the banks of River Aare with the Jura Mountains as a backdrop. It’s regarded as the finest Baroque town in Switzerland and its pedestrianised Old Town has many heritage sites, such as the St. Ursus Cathedral and the Jesuit Church. The 13th-century clock tower in the square is the city’s oldest structure. The 16th-century astronomical clock on its facade brings out a parade of figures on the hour.

The riverfront is lined with charming restaurants and cool bars. Drop in at the elegant La Couronne Restaurant for some haute French cuisine. Don’t miss the Solothurner Torte at Confiserie Suteria, a melt-in-the-mouth hazelnut meringue cake, layered with light cream filling.

A short bus ride (or a leisurely walk) outside town will bring you to Verena Gorge. An easy 2-kilometre trail along the gurgling Verenabach stream leads to a secluded hermitage and chapel. It’s a place of great spiritual energy, which whispers of the legend of Saint Verena.

Die Grüne Fee Absinthe Bar & Bistro, Kronengasse 11.,+41-32-534-5990 (diegruenefee.ch; Mon-Thu 5-11.30 p.m., Fri 5 p.m.-1.30 a.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-1.30 a.m.)

  • Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer who is obsessed with coffee and all things Italian. She tweets and instagrams as @delishdirection.

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