Travel: On the French-Swiss Absinthe Trail

New York TimesJuly 12, 2014 

For more than an hour I’d been walking up the mountain trail , marching to the off-kilter orchestras of Swiss cowbells in nearby meadowsalmost certain that I had lost my way. But eventually I spotted a sign for the goal I was seeking: La Fontaine Froide was up ahead.

I was looking for the fountain because its chilly water was said to be ideal for diluting a glass of absinthe, the area’s traditional alcoholic beverage. An intense spirit flavored with powerful herbs, absinthe had been the favorite drink of impressionist painters, romantic poets and the bons vivants before being banned around Europe just before World War I. There was supposed to be a bottle of the good stuff waiting to reward any visitor who survived the long hike up the mountain.

A trail marker noted that I had reached 1,126 meters, or 3,694 feet, and I felt the relief of having achieved my goal. But the bottle I had been promised was nowhere to be seen.

“You’re in the valley of absinthe, in the place where it was born,” distiller Claude-Alain Bugnon said the next day as he poured me another shot and topped it off with chilled water after I told him about my trip to the fountain. The unsaid lesson: It was foolish to hike for hours in search of something as ubiquitous as absinthe in the Val-de-Travers, where the drink known as la Fée Verte, or the Green Fairy, had been distilled for centuries. But the long walk through the forests and fields had given me a deep appreciation for the landscape that had produced one of the world’s most celebrated - and, at one time, reviled - beverages. And it had also helped me work up a thirst.

A first taste

That thirst had been piqued a few weeks earlier. A friend in Prague had started hosting upscale absinthe tastings at a bar there, including several versions out of France and Switzerland. Although both countries had banned the drink about 100 years ago, following widespread panic about its hallucinogenic and deleterious effects, absinthe production was legalized in Switzerland in 2005, and in France in 2011.

After sitting in on one of my friend’s tastings, I found myself unable to stop thinking about the drink’s anise aromas and the starkness of the bitter herbs on the tongue, and I was deeply disappointed that I couldn’t find anything similar.

As I began reading more about absinthe, I discovered that some of the most highly praised versions came from the Val-de-Travers. It turned out that the area and the nearby French province even had something called the absinthe trail, a list of attractions related to the drink: distilleries, museums, restaurants and destinations like the Fontaine Froide. If good absinthe couldn’t come to me, I simply had to hit the Swiss-French absinthe trail.

The view into the Val-de-Travers from my train gave me a taste of the area’s remote ruggedness. Soaring pine-covered mountains were an ideal landscape, I imagined, for bootleggers and smugglers. And indeed, as Bugnon explained when I met him in his distillery in Couvet, bootlegging was a substantial reason absinthe returned so quickly after it was re-legalized in 2005. More than 20 legal distillers now operate in the Val-de-Travers, he said, and many more operate illegally.

Colorful history

It wasn’t just that the Val-de-Travers enjoyed a lengthy tradition of bootlegging: Many of absinthe’s most important ingredients came from the area. In particular, its namesake ingredient, grand wormwood – Artemesia absinthum – might have been found all over Europe, but the type of wormwood that grew in the Val-de-Travers and nearby Franche-Comté was said to be vastly superior. Other herbs traditionally used in the drink, like lemon balm and lesser wormwood, were also sourced from the region.

Absinthe production started in the Val-de-Travers in the early 1700s, explained Christophe Racine, a former druggist and bootlegger who is now a legal distiller of La Fine absinthe, as well as the owner of an absinthe boutique in Motiers, a 40-minute walk from Couvet, the historic hometown of absinthe.

His stories from the bootleg era were fascinating, although they made a substantial contrast to the overt interest in absinthe today. After leaving the Bovet distillery, I stopped for supper at Les Six-Communes, which offers a dozen or more rare absinthes as well as an absinthe-dosed ice cream for dessert. Signs and banners for absinthe distilleries flew up and down the historic main street of Motiers, whose timbered houses and sprawling public square looked unchanged from when Jean-Jacques Rousseau had sought refuge here, following the outrage over the publication of his book “Emile: or On Education,” in 1762.

Before I left Motiers, I stopped in to say goodbye to Racine, who offered me a local specialty, café briquette: an espresso shot dosed with a shot of his own absinthe. The oily espresso brought out rich, minty aromas from the spirit, while the bitterness of the absinthe’s wormwood accentuated the bitter bite from the coffee. Like many absinthe lovers, I’d found that absinthe seemed to stimulate my imagination, and that effect combined with a touch of caffeine felt like the ideal fuel for a long walk home.

Although absinthe had been born in Switzerland, the drink had come of age just across the border. One of the biggest distillers, Pernod, had started in Couvet before moving production to the French town of Pontarlier. By the end of the 19th century, Pontarlier was home to some 75 absinthe distilleries.

Today, just two distilleries produce absinthe in Pontarlier, although the town cherishes its history and association with the drink. During my trip in October, one of the main absinthe festivals – Les Absinthiades – was set to take place.

Happy introduction

An American author, Scott MacDonald, was signing copies of his book, “Absinthe Antiques: a Collection From la Belle Époque,” when I asked if he could describe the difference between the two countries.

“The French are known for their vertes and the Swiss for the bleues,” he said. “The French absinthes tend to be darker and more mysterious. A good Swiss bleue is very pure and very clean.”

All absinthes seemed equally mysterious to me, producing the same intense reverie in my brain, although I was starting to think I preferred the taste of absinthe bleue. We talked about the two versions as we joined some friends on a walk across town to the Guy distillery, producer of François Guy absinthe.

Inside, small groups of French tourists lined up for samples. In the courtyard outside the tasting room, several young absinthe fans debated the merits of Guy’s absinthe versus other brands, and I tried to follow their conversation in French.

A moment later, MacDonald approached with a glass. “Try this,” he said.

The drink seemed thicker, perhaps just in terms of the density of its aromas, with a long-lasting bitterness hiding behind a slightly oxidized, licorice-like anise nose. It was an absinthe verte, but the taste was more gentle than the others I’d tried, with an alcoholic warmth that seemed to expand into infinity.

I felt a strange sense of disappointment when MacDonald told me what I had just tried: one of the distillery’s own pre-ban absinthes, made just before the drink was outlawed in France in 1914 and poured from one of the last remaining bottles as a gift for MacDonald by the distillery’s owner. Until then, I thought that I had found what I was seeking and that was Swiss absinthe bleue. But this had been one of the best sips of my life, and unfortunately I would almost certainly never taste anything like it again. Not even in the Val-de-Travers, beside a mountain spring, just a few steps ahead of the Green Fairy herself.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service