Located in Pontarlier, is Distillerie Guy, where you can experience absinthe and discover its unique history.
Absinthe has always intrigued me. Say the word and it will immediately conjure images of frivolous and somewhat trippy Art Deco posters or paintings of intoxicated folks staring pensively into space while sipping the drink at Parisian cafés. Paintings such as Degas’s L’Absinthe (1875-6, Musée d’Orsay), which has always been one of my favorites, despite the melancholy portrayed. I had never tried absinthe, up until last week when I visited Distillerie Guy in Pontarlier where I learned more about the mythical drink and had my first absinthe experience.
Though the drink was supposedly invented in 1792 as a medicinal concoction by the French doctor Pierre Ordinaire in Val-de-Travers (neighboring Switzerland), it was Pontarlier in Haut-Doubs that would become the drink’s capital. In 1797, the recipe fell into the hands of Major Dubied, father-in-law of Henri-Louis Pernod. In order to avoid taxes, Pernod Fils crossed the border into Pontarlier where the first distillery was set up in 1805. Though it was first mostly consumed by soldiers (the drink was used to purify their water, it was said), absinthe became exceptionally popular after 1830 and throughout the rest of 19th century. In fact, around 1915, there were twenty-two distilleries and 150 cafés in Pontarlier alone. Everyone looked forward to the ‘Green Hour’ (l’heure verte) with thirsty anticipation, which took place every day between 5 and 7 p.m.
Especially after the second half of the 19th century, when the phylloxera louse had destroyed a large part of the French vineyards, absinthe was the drink of choice. Not only was it more popular than wine, but a glass would only cost a few centimes. Artists and writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Guy de Maupassant and Ernest Hemingway were big fans of ‘The Green Fairy’, and absinthe flowed abundantly throughout Bohemian Paris.
Perhaps too abundantly. That coupled with its high alcohol content (65-72%) was a recipe for trouble. Oscar Wilde wrote: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. I mean disassociated. Take a top hat. You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t because you associate it with other things and ideas. If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you’d be frightened, or you’d laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.” The prohibitionists in turn claimed “L’absinthe rend fou!” And the winemakers, who wanted wine sales to increase, nodded in agreement. Scientists claimed that thujone, a substance found in the main ingredient artemisia absinthium, had a hallucinogenic effect and even lead to madness. This all eventually resulted in the ban of absinthe in 1915. Most distilleries closed, with the exception of Distillerie Guy, founded by Armand Guy in Pontarlier in 1890. The distillery survived because they were also producing another liqueur named Le Vert Sapin. It was invented in 1902 by Armand and is made with the young buds of local fir trees.
A VISIT TO DISTILLERIE GUY
In 2001, however, research proved that in moderation absinthe was safe for consumption, and the drink was born again, albeit in a lower alcohol percentage (45-60%). Those who want to learn more about absinthe can head to Distillerie Guy. Today, the distillery continues to make absinthe according to the family’s ancestral recipe as well as other liqueurs and spirits. I visited the distillery last week and was given a tour by Pierre Guy, son of fourth generation distillery owner, François. After an explanation of absinthe’s history, composition and distillation process as well as the story of the family distillery, we were offered a tasting of various products, including absinthe and another tasty creation — a mousse made from the shoots of fir trees and either eaten with a spoon or as a shot; it is also used in recipes and cocktails.
Those who visit the area, should definitely stop by Distillerie Guy for what is guaranteed to be a unique (and very delicious) experience.
DISTILLERIE PIERRE GUY
49 RUE DES LAVAUX – 25300 PONTARLIER
TEL : (+33) 3.81.39.04.70 – www.pontarlier-anis.com
For further information about the Jura Mountains, please visit www.montagnes-du-jura.fr/en/
(Opening image courtesy of: Alain DOIRE / Bourgogne-Franche-Comté Tourisme, third image courtesy of: Guillaume PERRET / Route de l’Absinthe)