100 years ago ...

Wednesday, 06 October 2010 21:57

October 7, 1910, one hundred years ago today. A black day for absinthe in Switzerland since this was the day that absinthe was officially banned. Over the next few years, similar bans followed in France, in the USA, and in many other countries. In Switzerland, the ban was to last nearly 95 years ..

But while it seemed like a black day in Switzerland at the time, it led to an explosion in underground “white” drinks! A resistance army of farmers and of housewives started making absinthe without the final green colouring step, and drank them “en famille,” with their friends, and maybe even with the Customs guards who were supposed to stop such practices!

La Clandestine itself was born 25 years after the introduction of the ban, in 1935. We have known the name of the creator of La Clandestine, Charlotte Vaucher, née Jeanneret; we have seen photos of Charlotte and of some of her family. But until recently that was all.

So you can imagine our delight to see a blog published on August 22, 2010 which detailed some of the story of Charlotte … from her family’s perspective. You can read the original here.

Knowing, however, that not everyone can read French, we’ve translated the original blog article and are pleased to bring it to you today to mark the 100th anniversary of the ban. Enjoy!

A celebrity in the family!

We all dream of having a famous ancestor that we can tell our children about. My daughters are very proud of their Swiss origins which come from their father. And they are even more proud because of this little story I'm going to tell you ...

My husband and his family are from a beautiful region of Switzerland: the Val-de-Travers. For those who do not know this beautiful area, it is situated in the canton of Neuchâtel (average altitude of 700 to 900 meters above sea level), and is a district that includes 13 municipalities (county seat: Môtiers). The canton of Neuchatel is on the far west of Switzerland and has a common border with the French Jura. So much for geography ...

In this lovely country and especially in the Val-de-Travers, there is a tradition: that of ABSINTHE! For those who do not know, absinthe is an anise flavoured spirit (very different from our French pastis). Green or clear, its roots are in this small region of Switzerland. Now for a little history lesson:

In 1769, an “extrait d’absinthe” was being sold on the market: it is believed to be the first. The very first production of absinthe took place in the Val-de-Travers and more specifically in the small town of Couvet (which is precisely where my husband’s family came from). Indeed, the geography, climate and altitude in the area are ideal for growing plants such as Artemisia absinthium, (or grande wormwood), a key ingredient in absinthe.

In the 19th century, the fame of absinthe spread throughout France and then into most other European countries and the United States. Its immense popularity was not to everyone's taste, especially not to the producers of wine grapes which had been attacked by phylloxera. The Green Fairy was accused of all the worst evils (she drove people mad, she destroyed families, etc) and was banned in many countries. But in Switzerland, she survived thanks to the "clandestine resistance" as the artisans of the Val-de-Travers were called.

Green absinthe became strangely clear; some assume this was to fool the inspectors (or the police) into believing that the bottles contained vodka. But we think that these officers knew exactly what was happening and their silence was bought with a few bottles of the Green Fairy!

So where is the family history in all this? Well, one evening, “surfing" on the net, I was reading about this famous banned absinthe that was distilled in Switzerland. A few websites and blogs later, I discovered a page mentioning a distillery in Couvet and one “Charlotte.”

My curiosity piqued, I asked my husband about this and I finally made the connection between one of his great-aunts (the above named Charlotte) and a Couvet distiller who produces a famous absinthe exported to the United States. This absinthe is called "La Clandestine" and comes from a recipe left by the enigmatic Charlotte. I realize that this is the Charlotte Vaucher that my husband's family knows so well … and for a very good reason!

For many years, my parents-in-law and their four children often went to Aunt Charlotte’s for their holidays. My husband and sister-in-law remembered being allowed to roam throughout the large family residence, with the exception of one locked room. What better way to arouse the interest of the young! But the door remained permanently locked. Those children, now adults, never knew what was hiding in this room ... until that evening when I discovered that Aunt Charlotte was indeed a "clandestine" operator who quietly and secretly distilled an absinthe that is now exported to the other end of the world!

I contacted the distiller in question to confirm the identity of Aunt Charlotte. And, bingo, it is indeed the same person. The memories of my husband and his sister, Sylvie, did the rest! Aunt Charlotte was indeed the "illegal" distiller now referred to on the official website of La Clandestine. So how did Charlotte’s recipe and its "secret" arrive in the hands of the Couvet distiller who was unknown to the family?

The distiller himself provided the explanation:

On the death of Aunt Charlotte, one of her nephews "inherited" the recipe. Working in an oil company, he was a colleague of Claude-Alain Bugnon who one day decided to give up oil and to start distilling high quality absinthe! One Christmas, Charlotte’s nephew visited his former colleague and asked him if he could make a few bottles of absinthe from Charlotte’s recipe to be given to his family in memory of their aunt or great-aunt.

So the story of La Clandestine begins: a little later, the nephew sells the recipe (which dates from 1935) to Claude-Alain Bugnon who now sells it in countries from the USA to Asia. Helped of course by the legalization of absinthe in Switzerland on 1 March 2005, which saw the official launch of La Clandestine!

La Clandestine is produced from 100% natural ingredients and, apparently, the experts are not wrong! This absinthe has won numerous awards each year at the "Absinthiades" (the equivalent of Oscars for absinthe!) in Pontarlier in France.

This story is now part of the "heritage" of my family and my children are even more proud of their Swiss origins!

This story is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it is emblematic of a part of the history of Switzerland torn between preserving its cultural heritage and the need to ensure the health of its population. The old absinthe contained thujone, (a natural chemical that has been accused of having so-called hallucinogenic properties*). Today consumption is again permitted and absinthe still contains a small amount of thujone. Then, for the story of Aunt Charlotte, I like it because it tells of a woman who decides to "resist", to defy the public authorities and who does so in secret for all those years. A fact that has intrigued many of her descendants ...

My sister-in-law, Sylvie, has often spoken of "Aunt Charlotte" as a "personality," a "pillar" within the family. She clearly was! A big thank you to Sylvie for her contribution to the reconstruction of this history. And for all the anecdotes she has shared with us.

Oh, I forgot, I must add: "Alcohol is dangerous for your health. Consume with moderation!" For those who don’t know this yet ...

La Maman

Note that there are further comments from the family beneath the blog. I liked this one:

“What a great story indeed. The mystery of the locked door revealed after so many years ... There was also a blue jug marked "Gentlemen, it's time" that Uncle Charlie left to fill in the laundry room, slowly, with a tiny stream of water (there was no ice at Aunt Charlotte’s). And we, the small children in the house, did not understand the subtle innuendoes when the adults spoke about the "blue" ... that, when it crossed the border (into France), was confined in a white wine bottle. And imagine the taste of the risotto prepared by Aunt Charlotte, who, preoccupied with the discussion of a camping holiday, poured in some “blue” instead of the white wine ...” (Written by Misstinguett, great-niece of Charlotte)

* Translator’s clarification: In truth you would have to drink several bottles of absinthe to get any “thujone effect” and would likely die of alcohol poisoning first. In addition, research indicates that there is no meaningful difference between Swiss absinthes before the ban, during the ban, or after the ban.


We hope you agree that Charlotte’s story is fascinating and we hope that we can tell you more in future.

Thanks to Charlotte, and thanks to many like her, absinthe was kept alive when many must have thought it dead. In other countries, “absinthes” were produced, notably in the years before and after the turn of the millennium. When absinthe was finally re-legalised in Switzerland on May 1, 2005 accompanied by stricter definitions of absinthe than exercised anywhere else, the work of Charlotte and her fellow freedom fighters finally saw the light of day … officially.

We drink a toast to Charlotte and her compatriots today and thank them for their work in keeping the fairy alive. Santé!