Swiss bid to brand absinthe faces French challenge

by Malcolm Curtis Swisster.ch | June 24, 2010 | 09:00

French distillers are challenging a bid by producers of absinthe in the Neuchâtel region of Val-de-Travers to protect the strong liquor, banned for most of the last century but now undergoing a trendy revival, as uniquely Swiss. A group from France, calling the move a “provocation,” is filing an appeal with the federal agricultural department to protect its industry, despite the fact they are unable to use the “A word” in labelling.   

The image of a glassy-eyed, blue-tinged figure, holding a spoon dipped in a glass filled with a murky liquid, held bidders spellbound at a London auction this week. The Absinthe Drinker, a 1903 painting by Picasso, eventually went under the gavel at Christie’s for a dizzying 34.8 million pounds to an unidentified collector.

The appeal of the painting – put up for sale by an arts foundation of musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber – and the high price paid for it, underscore the lingering mystique of a potent liquor invented in Switzerland. After being banned in the mountain country and many parts of the world for almost a century, absinthe, famously associated with bohemian fin-de-siècle artists, is making a comeback in the land of its birth, five years after being legalized.

Now, producers of the high-alcohol drink from a remote valley of canton Neuchâtel are seeking brand protection, similar to that given to wines and cheeses, that would prevent competitors from other areas from using the absinthe name.

The protection would even extend to its knicknames, la fée verte, so-called because of its colour (although it can also be clear), or bleue. Distillers in Val-de-Travers applied for the “indication geographique protegée” label with the Swiss federal agriculture department at the end of March.

If they are successful, all products identified as absinthe from outside the Val-de-Travers would be banned from importation into Switzerland and the rest of Europe. Absinthe is said to have been created by Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in the Val-de-Travers at the end of the 1700s.

And Swiss distillers produced the liquor through the latter half of the 19th century, including the Kübler family which began producing it commercially in 1863. Yves Kübler, a fifth-generation member of the family, began producing absinthe five years ago after spearheading the move to have it legalized again in Switzerland.

The New York Times last year named Kübler’s Absinthe Superieure as the best absinthe in the world in a top-10 list that included two other Swiss brands. So the region, bordering France, may have a fair claim on the name of the liquor.

But the Swiss distillers’ recent move to protect their product has aroused concern among French drink makers. “It’s a provocation,” Marie Benech, managing director of the French Federation of Spirits, told the AFP news service.

The federation is planning on Friday to file with the Swiss agriculture department to block the bid. France has 15 companies currently producing absinthe, which has was legalized in that country in 1988.

But curiously enough the brands are not allowed to use the word “absinthe” on their labels because it remains illegal under French law to use the word. Benech said the distillers group wants to “rediscuss with French authorities the use of the word absinthe.”

Currently manufacturers in France have to identify their products with a term that when translated means “spirit drink made from absinthe plants”. Distilled from herbs such as wormwood aniseed mixed with grain alcohol, it became popular among soldiers in the mid-19th century as a cure for malaria.

It also gained popularity among artists and was strongly identified with the bohemian movement, with figures ranging from artist Vincent Van Gogh to writer Oscar Wilde. But its elevated level of alcohol – ranging from 45 to 74 percent – and its reputation as a dangerously addictive drink led to it being banned in most parts of Europe by the time the First World War broke out.

More recently, nations have agreed to legalize absinthe after its reputation for driving people mad proved to be oversold. The US only legalized it in 2007, but America has become one of the biggest markets for Swiss and French distillers, as well as those from other countries.

Consumers are now ready to pay 65 to 80 francs for a 70-millimetre bottle of the stuff, which may explain why there’s such a fight over the name.

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About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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