Wormwood Society Opposes Exclusive Use of the Name “Absinthe”

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The Wormwood Society hereby states its opposition to the establishment of a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) passed on August 16th, 2012 by Switzerland's Federal Office of Agriculture. We have determined that the PGI has a false basis and that it should be revoked.

According to The International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, “a Geographical Indication is a sign used on goods which have a specific geographical origin and possess particular qualities or a reputation due to that place”, such as Champagne, Scotch whisky, Port wine, Idaho potatoes, Roquefort cheese, and Kona coffee.

This PGI contains a number of protections regarding absinthe, the most ominous of which is to geographically restrict the legal application of the name “absinthe” to only those spirits originating from the small Val-de-Travers district of Switzerland.

The international public was given 30 days to object to the measure and 42 parties responded in opposition, including absinthe producers in France, the United States, parts of Switzerland outside Val-de-Travers, and concerned Wormwood Society board members, but the Swiss Federal Office of Agriculture accepted none of the counter arguments.

Although proponents of this geographical indication initially claimed the law would only affect producers domiciled in Switzerland, they have provided nothing to substantiate that claim. Many treaties bind Switzerland and the European Union. One relevant treaty, the Agreement on Trade in Agricultural Products, states in Annex 8, Article 5:

2. In the Community (EU), the protected Swiss names:

— may not be used otherwise than under the conditions laid down in the laws and regulations of Switzerland, and

— shall be reserved exclusively for the spirit drinks and aromatised drinks originating in Switzerland to which they apply.

Without evidence to the contrary, the Wormwood Society can only assume this article of the treaty will be upheld. This would require all European Union and Swiss absinthe producers outside of Val-de-Travers to discontinue use of the term, potentially causing severe economic harm to an industry still struggling to recover from over a century of propaganda and misunderstanding.

Furthermore, producers domiciled in countries with participating agreements currently in place or enacted in the future stand to be similarly affected, including those in the United States. Recent comparable agreements with Russia and Jamaica demonstrate the Swiss government's desire to forge these treaties with additional non-EU countries. The Swiss-Jamaican agreement is especially troubling since it necessitates, in another part of the world, the same restriction of the designation “absinthe” as does the Swiss-EU arrangement.

Proponents of the Swiss measure further claim that the tradition of post-ban clandestine absinthe production in Val-de-Travers cemented the region’s place in history and suggests an unbroken lineage. However, the distilling of absinthe has always been an international heritage and the greatest proportion of absinthe production and popularity occurred outside the tiny region of Val-de-Travers. Most prominent was France where, indeed for 110 years, that country had been known globally as the epicenter of absinthe tradition. Notable post-ban examples are the clandestine operations in the city of Pontarlier in France, Spain's uninterrupted legal production into the 1960s, and New Orleans businessmen J. Marion Legendre and Reginald Parker, who clandestinely distilled absinthe, using it as the inspiration for the subsequent commercial product, Herbsaint.

The Wormwood Society finds this measure illogical and unacceptable since, historically, absinthe was made in distilleries throughout the world and continued to be legally produced outside of Switzerland after that country banned the production and sale of the spirit in 1910.

The Wormwood Society recognizes the need for legally defining the spirit known as absinthe and commends the country of Switzerland for taking the lead in that matter. However,  the geographical indexing of the term absinthe is misleading, inaccurate, without historical foundation, inconsistent with the typical treatment of origin designations and, whether intentional or inadvertent, may activate the enforcement of existing and future international treaties. The results of this would be the cornering of the beverage's designation, potentially usurping the absinthe market.

The Wormwood Society thus views the aims of the Swiss PGI as antithetic to its mission of factual absinthe education and opposes it because of the misinformation upon which it is based.

Of far greater gravity, however, are the issues of suppression of free and fair trade and the diminished consumer choices that may very likely result from this misinformed and misguided measure. This measure entered into law, similar to those of a century ago, codifies a fallacy and has the potential to do great harm to the absinthe category as a whole.

 

Contacts:

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