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Blanches vs Bleues

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As someone still relatively new to absinthe one of the things I've had trouble with is understanding the exact distinction between a blanche and bleue. I had thought that a bleue was simply a Swiss blanche but then relized that Duplais is labled as a blanche and not a bleue. Is this due to the Duplais history? Something with the VdT? Or simply a choice?

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It's ambiguous and there is no set standard. There is a history though.

From what I can remember, "La Bleue" was a term that meant "illegally produced absinthe" that became a slang term in Pontarlier and the Val-de-Tavers when absinthe was banned. It was often left as a blanche absinthe as that was easier to slap a vodka or gin label on, to get through customs, than a verte.

 

Some say it has to do with the blueish hues when it is louched but I've seen that in the louche of vertes as well. I think it's a reference to "blue laws" that no one in the area cared about. But when it comes down to it I'm not really sure and I doubt anyone else is including the Swiss.

 

Much like the term "moonshine" in America,, the term "La Bleue" doesn't necessarily mean illegally produced anymore. I'd consider recipes that originated between 1910 and 2005 in Switzerland to be "La Bleue" style which is kind of ambiguous since most of those are house absinthes (one house to the next might taste exactly the same), or recreations of older recipes.

 

Absinthe made in a clandestine manner elsewhere in the world during the ban was just called absinthe. This is why I don't have a problem with the Swiss wanting complete control over the term "La Bleue". It's their far fetched assertion over other terms I have a problem with.

 

As much as the Swiss are proud of their illegal activities being an unbroken lineage, they are not the only ones to have made absinthe while it was banned. Like most banned things, there was a decrease in production, not an elimination. For some reason the Swiss are more prideful of it than others, such as the Spanish Absenta and South American Ajenjo makers, to the point of believing they were the only ones. Hence why they assert that they have a right to the ridiculous IGP on the term "absinthe". They don't.

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Duplais is labled as a blanche and not a bleue

Yeah, that would be because Duplais is not a bleue for several reasons :

- The distillerie is not in VdT

- It actually does not taste like a bleue.

- etc.

 

Duplais blanche would make a good centerpiece for a troll about the Swiss IGP

 

"La bleue" is typically a Val de Travers product, and it has such a specific taste that I have sometimes heard that all the bleue taste the same :)

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Star anise? Joking, joking... (mostly).

 

Seriously, with a couple of notable exceptions most la bleues seem rather one dimensional which is fine if that's what you're after. Blanches tend (but not exclusively) seem more complex. I don't think that is definitive by name but instead, reflective of the producers' preference, whether regional or not.

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Or you could say that is "la bleue" because the Swiss cannot make neither a good verte or a good blanche.

 

Alright, a bit too far there...

 

La bleue is an engineer's product, blue-print made somehow. No wonder some VdT distillers are clockmakers or chemistry engineers.

The point is having a regular, clockwork quality production. They don't evolve their products, they don't wander away from tradition. They despise people who change their batches yearly even, even if it's to ameliorate them.

There is some merit to that.

 

For other people, yeah, that just does not suffice

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The IGP continues to confuse me a bit. Why is it Duplais can label their product as absinthe but not la bleue based on the IGP? Or is the IGP more specific to La Bleue than the overal absinthe term?

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Duplais doesn't exist anymore. Oliver Matter recreates the recipes from the Duplais manual. The IGP states that absinthe can only be called absinthe if it comes from the Val-de-Tavers region of Switzerland. Right now this only applies to Switzerland (thus eliminating Oliver Matters absinthes) but since the EU and Swiss have lots of treaties to honor agricultural products with geographical protection many are worried it will spread internationally.

 

The IGP states that the terms "absinthe" "la bleue" and "fee verte" as legal terms that only those in the VdT can use. Everyone else in Switzerland (including the producer who distills Duplais, Mansinthe, etc.) are screwed. Possibly the EU, possibly everywhere.

 

You can read more about the IGP in this thread. It passed August 2012.

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Granted I don't know exactly how La Bleue distillers make their absinthe, I'm still gonna add my 2 cents.

 

 

In order to understand the difference between a Blanche and a La Bleue let's say beer was banned tomorrow in the US. You might have been doing some home brewing so you know how to brew beer, but all of a sudden it's illegal to make it and you don't have places selling brewing supplies anymore. Not only that, but you wanna make sure you don't draw attention from the authorities buying stuff that is mostly used for beer brewing.

So what happens?

You still want your beer so you decide to make it illegally, in your basement, at night.

First you work on the supplies. Malt is not available anymore to the public so you gotta make your own. Maybe you know how to make it but it's not gonna be as perfect as the one you used to buy. Then you need hops. You won't be able to find fancy hops varieties and the only hops you can find is from a herbal supplements shop. Goes without saying that hops sold for making relaxing herbal teas is not nearly as good or fragrant as the hops sold before for beer production. You also don't find proper yeast so you try using bread or wild fermentation.

Then you start your brewing, but again you don't have the right equipment. Or you only have some and other things you have to build yourself using stuff you find around in the house.

Bottom line is: you can still make beer but is it's not gonna taste like the beer that you were brewing before when you had access to all you needed from brewing supplies stores, and it's certainly not gonna taste like commercially made beer.

 

 

Now back to La Bleues, when absinthe was banned home distillers and absinthe aficionados were facing the same problems:

 

- supplies. With absinthe banned it was probably a lot harder to find some of the more exotic herbs if they were not also used for other purposes. And even if they were available, they were probably very expensive to buy in small amounts for individuals, so very likely the first Swiss clandestine absinthe distillers had to cut down on expensive or exotic herbs and replace some of them with some locally grown herbs. Also the quality of the ingredients (with the exception of the locally grown ones) was probably an issue, just like in the beer ban example.

High quality base alcohol was also a problem, which is why some clandestine La Bleue absinthes had methanol contamination.

 

- equipment. Clandestine distillers were certainly not using steam-heated Egrot alembics, but rather very small and simple direct flame alembics, very often handcrafted by the distiller himself using whatever he could find. Not only this would prevent the distillers from being able to have control on all the parameters of the distillation but the character of the absinthe is also affected by the alembic used to distill it.

 

- protocols. Some things they had to change to be able to keep a low profile: they stopped making green absinthes cause it was too obvious and they dropped the alcohol %. La Bleues traditionally are in the 50s (% not proof) while high quality blanches are in the 60s.

Other details were probably also changed because let's be honest: if you are making something just for personal use and for your buddies you are not gonna go all crazy with the small details as long as it tastes good. Kind of like Moonshine.

 

 

With a century of clandestine absinthe making in Val de Travers in Switzerland, all of these things have become a tradition. Even now that absinthe is legal, La Bleue distillers still make absinthe pretty much in the same way, with a few exceptions. The result is that compared to the blanches that are produced following the way they were produced before the ban, La Bleues tend to be less complex, lower proof, not as refined, and they have a certain distinctive flavor that reminds me of hay (some just call it the La Bleue flavor).

A notable exception is Bugnon (as in the video Alan posted) who not only has been experimenting with innovation (like the excellent Butterfly), but also has a much more professional setup, if still pretty small, than his other colleagues, and you can definitely taste it in his absinthe (more refined than the average La Bleue, more unique, etc).

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Thanks for noting Claude-Alain Bugnon as an exception, Stefano!

 

A few other comments:-

 

When the various bans were implemented (1910 - 1915), consumption of absinthe obviously fell dramatically, but the plants were still growing. Therefore it is possible that there were plenty of raw material supplies around and that suppliers might have had to lower prices to move their stocks and future harvests.

 

I have been told that a lot of the base alcohol was bought from Government sources (who were supplying it for other spirits), and that the Government often turned a blind eye to clandestine distillers because the Government was still getting paid by them. I don't say that it is 100% true for all distillers of course.

 

I have also been told that because the clandestine distillers had to rely on word-of-mouth (and not on advertising), it was even more important that they upheld the quality of their products.

 

Les Bleues: less complex? The 1935 recipe created by Charlotte Vaucher and used today for La Clandestine has 10 different plants. I believe Pernod Fils had 6 plants (1896 brochure). That may not be the only measure of complexity, and maybe, as Stefano says, Claude-Alain's recipe is unique!

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Stefano, your posts are are always a pleasure to read, as is the product you make. Im eagerly awaiting 2014 l'ancienne for someone that has come in a litle late La Grenuoille is one of my favourite drops at the moment. Keep up the great work mon artisane.

Edited by gee13

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Aside from a few exceptions (there's a reason CLB was my first and is still one of my favorites), I'd agree that Les Bleues are less complex. Not saying that to disparage them. Many are still quite good, but they tend to blend together. A while ago, when I went on that VdT review binge, I literally got bored. It was like was reviewing the same brand over and over. It culminated in my review of l'interdite: http://wormwoodsociety.org/index.php/component/content/article/20-traditional-absinthe/569-linterdite-distival

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Stefano, great post as always, my friend.

 

There's definitely some general differences in approach.

 

I've noticed many distiller in the VdT macerate at much lower strengths, some close to 60 degrees. Also, the cuts tend to go deep... so nearly everything you find has the lighter notes muted/covered up by flegmes.

 

But, when something stands out (like Claude-Alain's Sapphire *heart*) it matters. There was a great clandestine called Elixir d'Absynthe that rocked a year ago and not very many made their way out of Switzerland.

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Alan, you are very welcome. However I think when I talk about CLB I'm just stating the facts: really nice professional twin alembic setup, experimentation with barrique aging, wine base, vertes. He's not your classic basement La Bleue distiller.

 

Allow me to elucidate my points:

 

We know after the ban there was a transition phase, where a lot of distillers were still making absinthe and bottling it in used bottles that were stamped as being made before the ban, and therefore still legal to sell. I have no doubt that supplies were also probably still available for a few years after the ban, but after that I think ingredients like green anise and fennel of the highest quality (from Italy, Spain, or southern France) were not really available to the clandestine Val de Travers distillers. And Switzerland doesn't have the right climate to grow them. Also I'm thinking about exotic ingredients like vanilla, macis, etc. I'm not sure how easy it was for the clandestine distillers to find them in small the villages in the Val de Travers.

 

I know that the Swiss government was (and I maybe still is?) not too strict with providing base alcohol to individuals, but I remember several years ago (2005-6) David N. M. run a GC/MS on a 1950-60 sample of clandestine verte he acquired, and found an alarming level of methanol contamination. So I assume some clandestine distillers were making their own base (maybe they didn't have the right connections?) and obviously didn't know how to remove methanol. Which is a common problem with clandestine distillation of pretty much any spirit.

 

About the quality dropping or not, ultimately it can go both ways, but seeing what happened here in the US during the prohibition or in general in any situation where demand far exceeds the offer, my money would be on the quality dropping. Obviously this is just IMHO.

 

For the complexity I do believe that it's not about the number of ingredients but the quality of the ingredients. I've tasted absinthes made with 15 ingredients that were very mono dimensional, because of mediocre herbs or lack of balance.

Also you are mentioning PF's recipe that included only 6 ingredients, but PF was made with an excellent wine base, and that alone can add a lot of flavor nuances to the absinthe, not to mention barrel aging that in absinthes like Edouard Pernod can be very noticeable and add even more flavors. The classic La Bleue (correct me if I'm wrong) is made with a neutral base and never aged in barrel.

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Stefano, great post as always, my friend.

 

There's definitely some general differences in approach.

 

I've noticed many distiller in the VdT macerate at much lower strengths, some close to 60 degrees. Also, the cuts tend to go deep... so nearly everything you find has the lighter notes muted/covered up by flegmes.

 

But, when something stands out (like Claude-Alain's Sapphire *heart*) it matters. There was a great clandestine called Elixir d'Absynthe that rocked a year ago and not very many made their way out of Switzerland.

Thanks!

 

Didn't know about the lower proof maceration, that's interesting. Any idea why this trend started? Maybe with distillers making their own base and not being able to reach 85+ degrees with their alembics?

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