Val-de-Travers: the Birthplace of Absinthe
Absinthe was born in the small village of Couvet in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland in the second half of the 18th century and there are many stories associated with its birth. Several characters have been named as possible inventors of this mythical drink, including Dr. Ordinaire, the Henriod sisters, Major Dubied, Mother Henriod, and Abram-Louis Pernod. In 2009, Jacques Kaeslin published a book about the pioneers of absinthe and the distilleries of Couvet. This comprehensive work is based on state, church and public archives, and tells the story of each character involved, studying their links with absinthe.
It appears that an "extrait d'absinthe" was already commercially available in Couvet, in the Val-de-Travers, in 1769, that Major Dubied used to buy and drink it, and that it was probably a macerated absinthe. We can also learn from the archives that Major Dubied created his own brand under the name "Dubied Père et Fils" in 1797 and that he was paying royalties to Madame Henriod before distilling his own recipe. The absinthe of Madame Henriod was already known as demonstrated by a very old label (in the Neuchatel Museum) that reads "Extrait d’Absinthe Qualité Supérieure, de l’unique recette de M'elle Henriod de Couvet." As for Doctor Ordinaire, he arrived in Couvet in 1767 and was a controversial figure within the community. On several occasions, he was threatened with deportation because he did not respect the authorities' decisions and failed to honour his commitments. It is clear that he did not arrive from France with a recipe for distilled absinthe, since there are no prior or contemporaneous traces of this in France (while Switzerland has many).
Why did Major Dubied, an influential person in Couvet, not pay Ordinaire any royalties from the sales of his absinthe? If there is no historical record about Dr. Ordinaire and no royalties paid, it is because Dr Ordinaire was not involved in the creation of absinthe.
Jacques Kaeslin's research continues, but we are already convinced that Madame Henriod is an essential part of the true story behind the creation of real distilled absinthe.
Well, check the terrain and location of Couvet on Google Maps. The "terroir" - the geography, weather and altitude - mean that the area around Couvet is perfect for growing many of the plants used in distilling absinthe, and especially for Grande Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Much as the Cognac and Champagne regions of France have the best conditions for the grapes used in their famous drinks, so the Val-de-Travers region has the ideal conditions for many of the plants used in absinthe. And, quite naturally, distilleries in the immediate vicinity had access to the best and the freshest plants.
Absinthe's fame spread in the nineteenth century throughout France and then to much of Europe and the USA. Its very popularity became too much for many, especially for wine makers trying to recover business they had lost. Gradually, the absinthe fairies were forced out of business ... or, in the unique instance of Switzerland, to go "underground." From 1910 to 2005, the Swiss absinthe tradition was maintained and developed by the "freedom fighters," or artisans of the Val-de-Travers. Some have speculated that Swiss absinthe went "clear" at this stage, as the moonlighting distillers sought to confuse the Customs officers into thinking that their bottles were filled with vodka, but we think that most of the Customs officers knew exactly what was going on!