MOTIER, Switzerland – Absinthe, the drink banned almost a century ago as "madness in a bottle" is making a comeback.
The Swiss, who invented absinthe, legalized it this month, hoping to boost a sluggish regional economy and drag a generation of bootleg distillers into the 21st century.
Known in France as the "Green Fairy" because of its color, absinthe was banned in much of Europe in the early 20th century, when heavy consumption of the bitter aniseed-flavored tipple was linked to hallucinations, violence and depression.
The Dutch painter Van Gogh is reputed to have sliced off his ear while under the influence. Fellow artists Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec were also devotees, as were the writers Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde.
But the Swiss, who outlawed it in 1910, laud the high-alcohol drink as a folk remedy and aperitif, and boast that they have never stopped drinking it despite the ban.
On March 1, the day the ban was lifted, local distillers gathered in the village of Motier in the Val-de-Travers where absinthe is distilled for a festival celebrating the local brew.
One of the valley's notorious bootleggers, Claude-Alain Bugnon, who markets an absinthe called "La Clandestine" for 40 Swiss francs ($34.42) a bottle, stood chatting with his former tormenter, Dominique Schmid, head of the criminal division of the Swiss Federal Alcohol Administration.
"Now that you're not producing in secret and are doing it legally, we are good friends," Schmid told Bugnon.
Bootleg distillers enjoy a status as living legends having evaded the authorities to produce home-made absinthe for local consumption. Some even did mail-orders on the side.
"They'd ship it to Hollywood in the mail for $200 a bottle," said Nicolas Tripet, an absinthe promoter and avid consumer who runs the Swiss web site, www.absinthe.ch.
Switzerland hopes to increase revenues through alcohol taxes, even if the authorities have few illusions about the home brewers shedding their shady ways.
"They've lied for 100 years. They're not going to start telling the truth overnight," laughed Schmid.
The Swiss also hope to revive the Val-de-Travers economy. In 1910, the absinthe industry employed 600 on the Swiss side of the border and 3,000 on the French compared to a handful today.
The quest for jobs has pushed concerns about absinthe's possible side effects off the agenda completely.
"In order to succeed, you should forget the past. Absinthe is rich in culture and we need to use that to our advantage," said Bernard Soguel, a Swiss member of parliament. "We have an international audience and we need to use our history."
The Swiss have a unique claim on the absinthe's history and hope to win "appellation" rights to use its name exclusively.
According to legend, the drink dates from 1769 when a Val-de-Travers matron now known as Mother Henriod sold a concoction distilled from a dozen garden herbs to passers-by.
The most important ingredient is wormwood, or artemisia absinthium, a relative of the daisy that contains thujone, a substance similar to menthol which is believed to give the drink hallucinogenic qualities.
Absinthe is a clear drink that varies from 45 percent to 70 percent alcohol and which turns a light cloudy green or blue when mixed with water.
It is enjoying a revival with rock stars, jet-setters and in trendy urban bars lured by its old world glamour, wild reputation and the drinking rituals associated with it.
Modern Drunkard, a magazine which celebrates today's drinking culture, said even those revolted by absinthe's taste are likely to be drawn by the spectacle of drinking rituals that involve sugar, water and in some cases setting it on fire.
"While the peasants in the corner merely pour their booze in a glass and lap it down like wild animals, we, the smart people, the insiders in the know, are engaging in nothing less than alcoholic alchemy," the magazine wrote on its Web site.
Schmid doesn't see absinthe as a get-rich-quick scheme for the Val-de-Travers economy but believes the typical Swiss way of producing small amounts of top quality merchandise – just like the watch industry – could benefit the valley in the long term.
"We're very satisfied that they can produce a quality, niche product and that these people can redevelop their region economically," he said.
Re-creating the 600 absinthe-related jobs of a century ago may be little more than a hallucination.