Monday, 24 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 7

Firstly, a declaration of writer's interest: I am involved with the promotion of Swiss absinthe. You may therefore want to take some of what I say here with a pinch of salt, although never with fire, and possibly not even with sugar!

Absinthe was born in Switzerland in the second half of the 18th century. From the start of the next century, some companies also started to produce absinthe in France, partly, it seems, to avoid import duties.

Over the course of the next hundred years, different styles, strengths and qualities of absinthe appeared, and as that happened a system appeared for grading the different qualities. These included "Absinthe Suisse", "Absinthe Superieure", "Absinthe Fine" or "Demi-Fine" and lastly "Absinthe Ordinaire".
And ...

number SEVEN:

In the 19th century, “Absinthe Suisse” was used as a term to indicate the very highest quality absinthes, even if some of them were not made in Switzerland.

So you can still find today old posters of French absinthes adorned with a Swiss flag (or if you are really lucky, you may find old bottles!). The excellent Absinthe Encyclopedia also shows several 19th century French absinthes clearly labelled "Absinthe Suisse." The poster for Royer-Hutin absinthe (produced in Dijon, France) bears the headline "Absinthe-Suisse;" labels for P. Course of Bergerac and Premiers Fils proudly bear a top banner stating "Absinthe Suisse" (pages 36/37).

Three years after absinthe was banned in Switzerland, Pernod's bottle continues to show the Swiss flag:

And after absinthe was banned in France and after Pernod shifted production to Spain, their 1935 bottles referred to the Couvet, Switzerland address. One could even make an argument that old bottles of Herbsaint (the US replacement for absinthe) bore a cross with more than a passing resemblance to the Swiss flag.

Interestingly, absinthe was still made in Switzerland during the time it was banned (making it the only country with a continuous 220 year history of making absinthe). Interestingly Switzerland is the only country with rules governing how absinthe must be made (it must be distilled and cannot contain artificial colours): rules which stop many of today's leading absinthes being sold in Switzerland.

So in certain respects the standards which led to "Absinthe Suisse" being seen as the top quality in the 19th century are still in place. 21st century consumer legislation and protection, however, will probably prevent French or any other non-Swiss absinthes from using any reference to Switzerland on their packaging in future ....

For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.


pølsemaker said...

Kinda like London Dry Gin then. London Dry can be (and is) made in Oregon, Scotland or Norway..

Alan said...

Similar, but not exactly the same. If absinthe had never been banned. maybe the term "Absinthe Suisse" would now be used on non-Swiss absinthes, in the same way that cheddar can be used on cheese from around the world. However the term "absinthe suisse" fell into dis-use and absinthe returned to the world at a time when the EU had done a lot to stop champagne, scotch etc etc being produced outside the areas they were named for. That sets a bit of a precedent for "absinthe suisse."