The People who Pioneered Absinthe's Renaissance
Part 3: Discovering the truth and doing something about it!
Coming Down to Earth
The launch at the Groucho Club paved the way for a careful programme of bar selection and staff training once the product was released. We felt that a conscientious approach to launching the product would prove to be the right way to return absinthe safely to popular culture, despite its underground edge.
Since 1996 I had also been running our own online drinks logistics operation (www.bohemia.co.uk) and in 1998 we launched the first online absinthe retail business, renaming it eAbsinthe.com, selling directly to almost every country around the world. This enabled us to educate many thousands of consumers directly about historical absinthe and modern-day absinth through the medium of product information, monthly newsletters, and special offers. Americans were quick to adopt this route to absinthe through private sales in Europe via personal imports, sparking the public interest we still see there today.
There were some fun stories emerging: Evening Standard 16th June 1999 - 'Baron's heir to fight driving ban after absinthe "altered his mind"' & Town & City March 2000 - 'Bohemian Rhapsody'
The honeymoon was, however, short-lived. Our activities in re-opening the absinthe market were being questioned in the House of Lords, while many County Councils were mistakenly pulling our product from bars - only to find themselves being presented with copies of our original EU certificate which vouched for its legality. That these authorities were slow to catch up was, however, a minor irritant compared with the speed with which our imitators caught on. Our measured, educational approach to developing the upper strata of the on-trade had rebounded on us and taught us that when demand is created and not entirely fulfilled, it takes very little time for the gap to be filled by others. Fortunately, because of our earlier tribulations in formulating the product, it was easy for us to spot these lookalikes. Pretty much all of them were electric blue-green in colour and called absinthe, taking their cue from the popular press. They came from Poland, Hungary, Ibiza, and of course the Czech Republic, a non-EU member state at the time. I could see all our hard work being usurped: a drastic solution was required.
My earlier experience with beer had taught me enough to know that I would have to act fast. In 1999 I embarked on a serious campaign to preserve, and to build on what we had created with Bohemian absinth by distilling real absinthe, similar to pre-ban - and if possible, restarting production in France or Switzerland.
My initial hope was that, in the case of France, the legal precedent I had established would work in my favour. If a product may be legally sold in one EU member state, it may, in theory, be sold in all of them, unless a member state has specifically addressed the issue in the Maastricht Treaty. Fortunately for the world and me, France had overlooked its absinthe ban, no provision for which is made in the treaty. So far, so good
The next piece of the puzzle was to unlock the individual terms of the French ban in order to bring true Absinthe distillation back within the law and to revive it for France. This would be stage one.
Research in 1999 indicated that at the time of the 1915 ban of absinthe in France, sales of the drink were contributing between two and three percent of the government's annual tax revenue. Furthermore, it was also the bread-and-butter staple of many a distillery from its heartland in Pontarlier to Paris, and throughout France.
Substantial fiscal and commercial interests were involved here, and it is inconceivable that such an important product would be given up lightly. I can only surmise that in typical French style, the ban was crafted in such a way that its blow was softened, both for the politicians and the distillers. Although Paris was absinthe's core market, its second most important stronghold was not in France at all, but in New Orleans which had already imposed its ban in 1912.
We were about to uncover a fascinating fact that would allow me to assemble a team which would bring the distilling of traditional absinthe back to France: Whilst unpicking the terms of the 1915 ban we discovered that the French had prohibited only the selling of absinthe in France, and not the distillation of it. This crucial distinction explained how the French distillers had been able to stay in business by capitalising on the French passion for aniseed by making pastis instead of absinthe, omitting wormwood from the blend and reducing the alcohol content from 68%abv to a more gentle 45%abv. This would possibly explain how Pernod (Absinthe being their core business prior to the bans) survived the ban to grow into one of the world's largest drinks companies today: Pernod-Ricard - second only to Diageo (not to mention the fact that the ban did not prohoibit export - which naturally died in time).
Pastis may have been the saviour of the distilling industry, but to my mind likening absinthe to pastis is akin to comparing a mustang to a domesticated pony. The product has departed so far from its roots that it is a shadow of its former self with all heart and soul gone. The thoughtful, hand-crafted balance of botanicals in absinthe stems from the herb which lies at its very heart Artemisia Absinthium, or Grand Wormwood. If this is taken away, the flavours of the green and star anise which are used to soften the overbearing bitterness of the wormwood begin to dominate, undermining the distinctive character of the original product. Nevertheless, it was the closest that consumers of absinthe would get to the real thing for many decades, part in taste if not substance. It was taken up enthusiastically and soon acquired the status of a national treasure, which it continues to enjoy.
1999/2000: Enter the Fairy
La Fée - inspired by the "green fairy"; as absinthe was known in turn-of-the-century Paris - would, in the words of Marie-Claude Delahaye, be "the first traditional French absinthe to be commercially produced in France since the ban of 1915". Madame Delahaye is the owner and curator of the French Absinthe Museum a world renowned absinthe historian. She is also a Cellular Biologist who has lectured at the Pierre & Marie Curie University, Paris. Her museum is in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town some eighteen miles north-west of Paris. Popular with artists, it happens to be the final resting-place of Vincent Van Gogh, who died there in 1890. It was about to witness the rebirth of the famous drink.
Marie-Claude receiving recognition from the French Government for her Museum
I knew only too well that by opening the market in 1998 with a Czech absinth I had effectively held the door open for a scrum of me-too products not only from the Czech Republic, but also from Spain, Italy Poland and Hungary - which started to swamp the UK market within eighteen months of our launch. In order to survive in what I increasingly saw as a cowboy market populated by crude, high-alcohol, garishly-coloured liquor, labelled absinth(e) but unscrupulously churned out to profit from demand, which we were trying to contain, and supply responsibly.
The more I learnt about authentic absinthe and its many imitators, the more convinced I became that there was only one route open to us to ensure the survival of the category and retain the loyalty of our client base of discerning industry drinks buyers. It was to revive the concept of "real absinthe" of impeccable provenance, faithful to the original recipes and method of distillation, and to present it to our customers in a way that emphasised with absolute clarity and transparency the premium nature of the product which we offered in this category. Our next challenge would therefore be to produce a real traditional absinthe, true to history, provenance and genuinely authentic. Every signpost and historical reference of note for the Green Fairy points clearly, and decisevely, to Paris and Pontarlier (France) - so in 1999 we started this journey.
My first rule of thumb in business is that the only way to overcome a problem is to ensure that the solution is underpinned by an unshakeable foundation. Although every master-distiller who had made absinthe before the ban was long dead, the distilleries themselves might still be active, and it was to these that I would confine my research. For that I required the world's biggest archive on French absinthe. That such an archive even existed was good news. That it also happened to be licensed by the French authorities as a historical museum was a bonus. The French Absinthe Museum in Auvers-sur-Oise, and its curator, Madame Delahaye had been the source of the historical and background information published in the national newspapers which had reported the re-launch of our 'absinth' in 1998. It was time to pay her a visit.
The Church at Auvers.
Vincent van Gogh, 1890
My first fact-finding trip to France in late March 1999 was fascinating. Accompanied by Jane, my French-speaking fiancée, I took the train from London to Paris where we met up with her university friend Helen who was living there. The purpose of the trip was to learn all we could about absinthe and to scour the flea-markets for the old spoons and glassware which would have been used to serve it. On our second day the three of us set out for Auvers-sur-Oise, arriving at the Museum just before lunch. Our inconsiderate timing was brought home to us when Madame Delahaye herself opened the door, if only to inform us that the museum was closed. However, she did suggest that we return after lunch, and we duly departed to one of the restaurants near the church, instantly recognisable from Van Gogh's painting, The Church at Auvers.
Our reception at the Museum after lunch was distinctly cool. It transpired that Madame Delahaye had recognised me from the press coverage of our launch, and given that my aim was to glean as much information and take as many photographs as I could in order to get a better understanding of absinthe, I was dismayed as I was given a severe talking-to. Predictably, the bone of contention was the sugar and burn approach with which we had chosen to launch our electric-blue "so-called Absinthe" in the UK. In fact, it was the gentlemen of the press who had incorrectly focused in on absinthe with an "e" and become sidetracked, as ever, by a juicy story about the meteoric rise and subsequent fall from grace of the iconic French drink, peppered with saucy tales of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge which was altogether too good a yarn to warrant a reality check. Though BBC's Watchdog broadcast a program looking in more detail at Absinthe (having spent license payer's money on a jolly to Switzerland, where their ban of 1910 was in effect). Their conclusion was one of indifference: That some people liked what we had and some did not.
Marie-Claude Delahaye, standing at the door to her Musée de l'Absinthe
Although photography was unfortunately forbidden, we still took a tour of the lovely museum before sitting down for a chat with Madame Delahaye. We found little to agree upon. I attempted to defend my fledgling absinthe business and to explain my proto-Darwinian theories on the evolution of the Czech product with little or no anis. Admittedly, this was based purely on the verbal testimony of an old distiller, dating back to 1926 and unsubstantiated by any factual proof, though it was reasoned that any useful evidence that might support the historical claims of Czech absinth would have been destroyed when most of the distilleries were seized by the Russian forces that invaded the country in 1968. At the time, I accepted this information at face value and always thought of it as a modern absinth(e) which came to be after the 1915 ban.
Our brand website LaFeeAbsinthe.com now states that, based on the known facts to date, Czech/Bohemian absinth, as you see it today is a product of the period following the Velvet Revolution of 1989. If evidence should be submitted to prove, beyond any doubt, the existence of electric-blue or green low-anis absinthe prior to that time, our position will be reviewed. What is likely, however, is that French and Swiss Absinthe would have found its way into the region in the 1900s, although it would not have been the electric blue colour of the modern version.
As it was obvious that I had rightly lost my argument with the uncompromising Madame Delahaye, we left in sombre mood with what little we had gleaned. The support of the museum was crucial to our campaign to challenge the proliferation of absinthes of dubious origin, and to ensure the survival of the authentic absinthe category, not only in the UK but also the world. Consumers will not continue to support products with no credible foundation. Many in the industry put it to me in 1999 that absinthe would be just another fad, here today and gone tomorrow. I never subscribed to that theory and concentrated instead on building a long-term future for the category. Having discarded all our other beer and spirit activities, my company had become the first to devote itself entirely to absinthe, and to this day we continue to be possibly the only globally active company dedicated entirely to its Absinthe's promotion and education . La Fée is in the unique position of working directly with Master Distillers; distilling absinthe according to my own principles of provenance and quality in France and Switzerland.
This pioneering work would lead to the definitive Absinthe folio...
Part 2: The Formative Years ...