The Val-de-Travers near Neuchâtel is home to more than a dozen absinthe distilleries which have witnessed their cottage industries take off since the spirit was legalised in 2005.
But how has the lifting of the ban changed the work and lives of the distillers?
A SECRET VALLEY
If you're going to keep secrets, the Val-de-Travers is a good place to do it. A narrow valley that winds its way through – ‘traverses' – the Jura mountain range, connecting western Switzerland with eastern France, its deep forests and craggy rock faces offer plenty of places to get up to business that is not necessarily legal. And that's just what people did here, in the birthplace of absinthe, during the long decades when the drink was declared illegal. From the time Switzerland banned the wormwood specialty in 1910 until it was declared legal again in 2005, absinthe – called the Green Fairy – never stopped being clandestinely produced and consumed in the Val-de-Travers.
Gaudentia Persoz remembers. When she first came here as a teenager from eastern Switzerland, hoping to improve her French, she noticed that patrons at the restaurant where she worked were being served from secret bottles that were passed behind backs, under tables, kept beneath the counter. No one ever explained. Customers simply ordered a ‘P'tite', a ‘small one'. What they got was absinthe.
Little did Persoz know that she would one day be brewing absinthe herself, and married into a family that had been making it for generations – and who kept distilling it in spite of the ban. Persoz is the first woman to have distilled absinthe legally in Switzerland. She and her husband Jean-Michel inherited his grandmother's nineteenth-century recipe and have been carrying on the family tradition ever since. First in secret, and now to increasing popularity under the label La P'tite.
La P'tite has kept on top of new and changing tastes with different recipes. The Traditionelle is a mild style favoured in western Switzerland with no bitterness and a minty warmth; then there's Valdetra Verte, complex and deeply herbal, an old-fashioned recipe more akin to nineteenthcentury absinthe; and then there are some developed for younger drinkers such as the Douce (very mild), and the Absinth'Love created for the German market (69 proof, strong, and rumored to be an aphrodisiac). Green Velvet, a new line of absinthe tailored for international markets, is set to be distributed around the world.
Of course, all the recipes are secret.
All versions can be sampled in the distillery tasting room, served with chilled spring water dispensed from glass absinthe fountains. One thing all the different brews share is a high alcohol content – from 53 to 69 proof. "I want to teach people that absinthe is for pleasure, but prevention is a big part of my job. Drinking responsibly has to be learned," Persoz explains.
What's different between making absinthe now and making it back when it was on the wrong side of the law? "The quality," says Persoz. "Before, I could hardly grow a garden full of wormwood plants – the authorities would have noticed. We had to order from anywhere we could get it. Now, we can source our ingredients locally. Many of our ingredients are hand-picked here in the valley."
Other advantages to legality include being able to leave the handcrafted copper stills to cool properly instead of packing them away still warm. The water used to cool the absinthe batches is now recycled in-house, and the rich green lees of the distilling process can be composted in the garden rather than removed and clandestinely scattered in the surrounding forests.
Persoz and her husband have been adding copper alembic stills to their collection to keep up with demand. As their popularity grows, it's important to Persoz that the process remain artisanal. When asked which part of the process she likes best, Persoz laughs and says, "All of it – making the herbal mix, distilling, filling the bottles. Everything except for the office work!"
She hopes to pass the business on to her two children. "It's part of the family. Keeping it in our hands helps it to keep its identity."
That might just be the secret to their success.
Photos: Creux de Van © Roland Gerth