Part 4: Finding the right People - Team La Fée
Making It Happen
Several months after that first failed visit to the museum I wrote to Madame Delahaye, asking for her permission to visit again, but this time with a proposal that would allow her to help me bring absinthe back to France. I am not a professional distiller, although my exposure is varied and relevant since 1998 over the years I have, on occasion, helped distil my own absinthe and I am fully attuned to the different ingredients, processes and styles as my company and I work on a day-to-day basis with several distilleries across France (which I consider to be absinthe's spiritual homeland) and Switzerland (its birthplace). My view of a master (absinthe) distiller is someone who lives and breathes absinthe twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and who has ideally been involved in distilling pastis most of their life, and more recently distilling absinthe. There are very few such professionals, although more recently many dedicated amateurs are becoming part-time producers. From the outset, La Fée had the foresight to find and work with the best people in the industry, and my role is to bring them together under one brand to ensure consistent quality & provenance - distilling various styles from classic French Verte and Swiss La Bleue through to modern day Bohemian. This approach has enabled La Fée to secure the absinthe category and bring to market a range covering Premium Mainstream, through Premium, to our boutique Ultra-Premium.
On the 26th of May 1999 I wrote to Marie-Claude Delahaye to explain my project:
"...Following our visit to your museum earlier this year I took full note of your comments you made on the subject of true French Absinthe. Unfortunately as we all know it is illegal under French law to produce any form of Absinthe at present. To start the delicate process of trying to reverse this situation I am in the process of forming a new company that is to be Anglo-French with global marketing aspirations for Absinthe. The sole objective of this company is to produce the most authentic French Absinthe..."
I then offered to find a French distillery with a history of absinthe production, if Madame Delahaye would consent to using her archives and personal wealth of knowledge to assist with the recipe and project.
Our second meeting quickly followed, facilitated by the translation services of Jane (now my wife) and Ann (Marie-Claude's daughter) who spoke impeccable English. We were ushered in, and behind closed and locked doors, were treated to a tasting from Marie-Claude's personal collection. At the time, most people would have found what we were about to do inconceivable, convinced that at any moment the door would be broken down by the Gendarmerie and we would all be arrested. The project upon which we were embarking was groundbreaking, with far-reaching implications in France, Switzerland and across the world. If we failed, the Absinthe category would most-likely be dismissed as a brief nonsense, like any other colourful, high-alcohol, flavour-of-the-month spirit. If we succeeded, the legacy of Absinthe production would be secured by her true renaissance.
The first distillery which we approached was Ryssen, a major independent based in the départementof Pas-de-Calais. I took with me as my "second", my mentor John Coe, UK industry giant and proprietor of Coe Vintners, a major importer and distributor of drinks to the Style Bar sector (John also joined me in one of our early meetings in Paris with Marie-Claude). He accompanied me out of interest, and a sense of fun, and I am eternally grateful for his support. The meeting was going well when halfway through, a dapper gentleman with a smart, silver-topped cane entered the room. He turned out to be the head of this family business, now run by his son who was conducting our meeting. Upon discovering the nature of our business a taboo subject in France at the time he became very excited and raided the company archives for references to any possible absinthe production.
Having explained our interpretation of the original ban, and asked that they consider working with us, Madame Delahaye and the Museum 'for export production only', we left in optimistic mood. Sadly, we discovered days later that it was not to be. Despite the enthusiasm of father and son for the project, a large proportion of the distillery's production was accounted for by one major client: Pernod-Ricard, one of the world's largest drinks companies which could have led to a conflict of interest.
Marie-Claude and myself travelling to London on the top deck of my La Fée Absinthe Routemaster Bus (kitted out with DJ booth, VIP area and 1920s style bar) with a bottle of La Fée's first distillation from Paris.
A Small Aside on the Competition
I understood the difficulty of Ryssen's, and hoped that Pernod-Ricard would not find out too much from them about our plans; especially as I had identified the company as one of two possible main threats to the absinthe market (as I assessed it in 1998 - with their substantial Pastis industry to protect). I believed the major threat in the UK was public opinion, compounded by local government which we had done our best to win over; with controlled release, bar training, product education and stringent quality-control. For some student venues, I even introduced a 'two stamps and you're out' system - to limit the number of drinks per person. The absinth which I first brought to the UK had been produced in accordance with my own (and of course the EU's) standards of quality, and was superior to the product on sale in the Czech Republic. We also ensured that we always had our certificate in place, vouching for the legality of the product, especially surrounding Thujone.
The threat in Europe was an unknown quantity. I believed that Pernod-Ricard might either lobby the French Government to nip our evolving market in the bud, or jump on the bandwagon with a competitive product. We had several encounters with Pernod-Ricard UK, as at the time I owned the exclusive importation rights for Becherovka in the United Kingdom (around the time they were buying it via the Czech Government).
*NB: 10 Years on both La Fée & Pernod are two of, if not the two key global absinthe brands; driving the renaissance - with La Fée leading the awards received list for the category and often being the brand of choice for Duty Free around the world.
Creating and Launching La Fée, 2000
Returning real Absinthe to France would require something very special, so I had to assemble a team of credible experts with both the historical knowledge and relevant distilling experience to undertake the return of real absinthe to France: This group would become Team La Fée
We struck it lucky with a Paris-based Pastis distillery, whose master distiller, Christian Camax (a genuine French gentleman who has spent a lifetime working with Anise based spirits) was prepared to work on this highly ambitious and pioneering project. That the distillery also had original working copper stills was a bonus. Firstly, however, we had to consult Marie-Claude's archives for the information needed to support our work in recovering this forgotten spirit. Christian joined myself and Madame Delayahe in these nervous early days (as absinthe was still perceived to be banned at the time) completing Team La Fée, with Tom Hodgkinson, John Moore and Gavin Pretor-Pinney in support.
Left: George, Marie-Claude & Christian Camax work on recipes and distillation method. Right: George & Marie-Claude working on the La Fée.
Our test distillations could now start in earnest. Test sheets were devised using a point system for each of the following:
- Aroma & taste - neat (without water)
- Aroma & taste - after the traditional serve (with water & sugar)
- Overall balance
To this day each distillation is tested by Madame Delahaye, with each batch having a sample delivered to her by courier for her approval prior to bottling. This is the level of assurance I wanted for consumers of La Fée.
The herbs were sourced, and the first order for 7,000 bottles was placed on 5th June 2000. The confirmation fax received from the Paris distillery read:
'Permission on the distillation of Absinthe La Fée...
...We are pleased to confirm that we have been authorised by the French government office to produce La Fée absinthe for the export market only...
Classic French Verte Absinthe returns:
La Fée distilled in copper stills in a classic fashion and is centred around Grand Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium); with Petite Wormwood, Fennel, Green and Star Anise to balance the deep, herbal bitterness of the central ingredient. The other key element that makes this a true traditional French (classic Verte) absinthe is the ABV at 68%. The weight of the Anise is essential for providing the full absinthe experience, as it helps open up the capillaries; increasing blood flow and enhancing the senses. When served correctly and diluted with water, between 4 to 6 parts through sugar (to taste), the body is better placed to absorb the herbal drink - giving the full Absinthe experience.
Again we commissioned artist Xtina Lamb to design our iconic serving instructions
Other herbs are used to delicately rein in the dominant wormwood, such as hyssop, and in La Fée's case we also include a rare and expensive herb found high-up in the Alps that the Museum insists is used to ensure perfect balance (often missed by many products today). Not wishing to hand everything on a plate to our competitors; the exact identity of said herb is a closely guarded secret.
We then stabilise La Fée to its signature Verte colour, giving you La Fée Absinthe Parisienne - ensuring year round quality and consistency the world-over, for both the bar industry and take-home consumer. This enabled us to stamp each bottle with our mark of excellence the iconic La Fée Eye which appears now on every bottle across the range.
Launching La Fée to the World
A copy of the invite and the original label for La Fée Absinthe
Our iconic eye motif would make La Fée the benchmark brand within the absinthe category for both traditional and modern styles. This striking logo would become instantly recognisable to consumers and mixologists alike at each point of entry to the market and would come to signify our approach to provenance, authenticity and quality.
Marie-Claude celebrating the return of real French Absinthe, Groucho Club, Soho, London, July 25th 2000
We again launched at the Groucho Club in Soho, London on the 25th of July 2000, with Marie-Claude. We had achieved the impossible and opened the door to a whole new industry in France again Real Absinthe was back! (OK, for export only that meant most of the World, but at the time did not include France, Switzerland, USA or Australia)
This was a fascinating time for us and put us right back on track; enabling a clear focus for my company and the La Fée brand to take. The significance of what Team La Fée had achieved will remain with the spirits industry as a turning point in Absinthe's illustrious and stimulating history, and was well received - with listings across high-end retailers such as Harrod's & Selfridges, and behind the bar at Claridges & The Ritz.
Pernod join the Party
Much to my relief, Pernod took the decision (following La Fée) to produce Pernod Aux Extraits de Plantes d'Absinthe (launching circa early 2002) and pitched their new product at a similar price level to La Fée, which had by then been in the market for some time. In La Fée's case we have had to build our reputation and Brand from the ground up to gain the trust from distributors through to clients and on to the Bar trade. Often this process works in reverse, as the Head Bartenders of premium hotels and Stlye Bars heavily influence the rest of the trade with the products they choose to work with La Fée's foundation would be critical to survival and ultimately her success.
This was a key moment for Absinthe's future as a category it never hurts to have the world's second largest drinks company to rubber stamp the category (and by default our early work) one gaint step to ensuring Absinthe's lasting renaissance.
In March 2003 we overcame the ban of the sale of La Fée Absinthe in France by changing the name of La Fée Absinthe to La Fée Aux Plantes d'Absinthe, that is to say not absinthe, but a spirit distilled from the plant of the same name - enough of a difference to make it acceptable to French customs, who had held the product for around six months before releasing it for sale (every bottle had to also carry a technical legal statement on the front label: Spiritueux Aux Plantes D'Absinthe). The spirit inside is, of course, identical - different only by name.
French etiquette label
We also felt ready to spread our wings and enter the world market from our platform in the UK, and as a result we were faced with more obstacles to overcome. The second ban we were directly involved in lifting was one imposed in Italy following a referendum in 1932. As with a lot of old laws that are studied from an external viewpoint, we found the validity of this restriction to be suspect. Our research with Velier (and owners Luca & Paolo Gargano), a local distributor based in Genoa, revealed that when Italy joined the EU and signed the Maastricht Treaty it had (like France) failed to register its absinthe ban, which effectively rendered it null-and-void. This was one of the few occasions in which we could celebrate EU bureaucracy while also rejoicing in the fact that a good technicality has its uses like opening up Italy to real Absinthe!
America shows signs of interest: 2000- 2003
Leading members of the public (often refered to in hindsight as early adopters) in America start tracking real Absinthe's emergence in France with envious eyes (absinthe would remain commercially Banned in the USA until 2007, though freely available across most of Europe). These consumer-pioneers started with private purchases of La Fée Absinthe from Europe for personal import back to the USA. The first commercial adverts for Absinthe the USA had seen since the 1912 USA Ban started to appear in Arthouse publications, fueling further interest. It was to take the US Government 7 years (from 2000) to allow Absinthe's commercial return; following a major breakthrough - in the form of adopting the joint FAO/WHO recommended CODEX review of 2006. La Fée had, however, filed the 'La Fée' brand for the USA in 2000
Sold USA Painters circa 2002
'Art Review' Advert (circulated in USA circa 2004)
Australia too had a ban in place, and special permission is still needed to this day in order to import La Fée into the country. I recall doing some research while over there in 2001 (when visiting my now brother-in-law) by dropping in to the customs office HQ in Sydney, a smart building in the central business district. I walked up to the main desk several floors up, with a small rucksack slung over my shoulder, and asked the officer about the status of Absinthe. Luckily, I did not offer up the bottle of 68% ABV La Fée Absinthe which I had in my bag, for he advised me rather enthusiastically that such a substance was illegal. I beat a hasty retreat with a nod and a smile, but in the end, entering the Australian market turned out to be simplicity itself. The problem was resolved for me through a process similar to the one used to allow absinthe back intothe USA. Australia and New Zealand share a great deal of common ground on trading standards, and the decision was taken by both to harmonise their trading standards legislation with that of Europe. Overnight, they adopted the permitted EU level of 10ppm on Thujone, thereby unlocking two new territories for me and for La Fée, courtesy of EU Council Directive No 88/388/EEC. Also like the USA; the limit for amers (bitter spirits) was not adopted meaning both our boutique La Fée XS range are unfortunately still prohibited.
Developing La Fée Bohemian: 2004
We had already established a presence in club and cocktail bar culture with the sugar and burn ritual of Czech Absinth, and the on-trade clearly loved its vibrant colour and its softer, low-anise finish which made for increased versatility in mixing cocktails.
When I launched absinth[e] in the UK in 1998 there was an almost total vacuum of public knowledge on absinthe (beyond the odd historic reference). We had found a unique and absolutely fascinating product which invited further exploration, and yet it was the unique serve with which we launched the product which put absinthe back on the map, rather like the innovative slice of lime offered in the neck of a bottle of Sol beer in the Eighties. It was completely alien to the tradition of pre-ban absinthe, but it was the spark which captured the imagination of consumers and media alike, and inspired aficionados to travel hundreds of miles to track us down (clearly the historically correct method of serving absinthe is with water dripped through sugar, and should never be confused with this modern, Czech inspired method).
With Bohemian absinth, we knew that we had been directly responsible for creating a phenomenon based entirely on the use of an inauthentic serving technique. By contrast, we had preserved the authenticity of true traditional absinthe by linking up with the Museum, and by bringing absinthe distillation back to France with La Fée Parisienne in 2000. We now ensure every 70cl & 75cl bottle of 'Parisienne' comes with a spoon and that the historically correct serving method is adhered to. The only way to correct the imbalance between the integrity of the two styles was to celebrate the success of the Bohemian absinth flavour profile, make it the very best of its kind and to welcome it into the iconic La Fée brand family. As you may have guessed by now, I thrive on the challenge of fact-finding, working out the best approach and identifying the right people to help me develop the La Fée brand and absinthe category.
This part of the journey had two key elements: My first stop was the Schimmel Library, Europe's oldest and most authoritative collection of works on herbalism. This privately-owned library contains some texts so rare and valuable that they are permanently stored in air-conditioned vaults. It was a great privilege to be admitted as a guest, and allowed to carry out research which has proved invaluable in the development of our market. Very few people gain access to this resource, as you can tell from the visitors book (I would estimate less than a 100 visitors a year from when I was last there) I was probably the only one doing key research on Absinthe here, having been allowed to visit this vast archive on several occasions - most people involved in Absinthe's emerging industry will not even be aware of this library until now. We were already aware of documented recipes which were sent from the library to Bohemia in the 1890s, and now we were able to track down the French base recipe which would constitute the essence of La Fée Absinth Bohemian, modernised to create the spirit we know as Czech absinth today. This modern style of absinthe is not to be confused with traditional absinthe; the two drinks look and taste very different.
Distilled to this recipe in the Bohemian style, using the highest quality grain, La Fée Bohemian was now brought into the world. Its ability to blend, mix and layer, not to mention burn, gives it great entertainment value for any bar. I can still vividly remember the two young London mixologists who tended the bar on my La Fée Bus fire-breathing La Fée Bohemian out of the open-top one night, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace! Irresponsible, without a doubt, and please do not try this at home.
Like me, traditional absinthe lovers will be glad to know that sales of La Fée Absinthe Parisienne far exceed those of La Fée Bohemian. That being said, La Fée Bohemian outsells many of the other absinth[e] brands in the market. The key is to respect the fundamental differences, ensuring that the customer always receives both the correct serve and the right message about the difference in style and history. In any taste test people will gravitate to one or the other. The two styles are so dissimilar that they cannot be confused, and the differences in their respective serving conventions further enhance their uniqueness.
La Fée Absinthe Parisienne & La Fée Bohemian sit side by side, displaying the left and right eyes for maximum impact from bar or shelf
Switzerland joins the party: 2005
Switzerland, some 8 years after I opened Europe up to Czech Absinth and 5 years after La Fée had returned real Absinthe distilling to France (clearly feeling a little left out and wanting to join the market) repealed their 1910 Ban on Absinthe. This was a great day for absinthe, another wall falls and the unique style of classic Swiss Absinthe was a very welcome addition to the market, with Clandestine and Kubler being some of the first to start distilling. The Swiss style of absinthe is unmistakable - being clear in appearance and nicknamed La Bleue there is no colouring stage in the production that introduces the classic Verte Green; the signature of French Absinthe (The Green Fairy). This, along with the return real French absinthe, would start to focus the industry's attention on the traditional regions of production - putting pressure on non-French and non-Swiss spirit suppliers making products called 'Absinthe'. I felt if we could focus attention back to the two countries of Absinthe's origin, it would signal clearly to anyone in what Absinthe really is and should be. This is the directive I gave La Fée, and to this day all our products are produced in either France or Switzerland.
Taking the Absinthe Category Ultra-Premium
In May 2005 the Swiss authorities allowed the distilling of Absinthe to once again legally take place by overturning their 1910 ban. I saw this as an opportunity to enhance the La Fée range and further enrich the Absinthe category with a project to distil the worlds first Ultra-Premium Absinthes. The provenance of the new product would be key, and I was looking to do this with both a French Verteand a Swiss La Bleue. To create a level up to Ultra-Premium from our Premium La Fée Absinthe Parisienne, I wanted artisanal batch distilling to take place in Pontarlier (the spiritual home of French Absinthe) for the French Verte, and in Couvet (the birth place of Absinthe) for the Swiss La Bleue. I started secret discussions with the leading Master Distiller based in each town. My first meeting in this area was held on the 15th July 2005; I flew into Geneva, hired a car and travelled to the Val-de-Travers region on the French-Swiss border, where both towns are situated 30km apart at opposite ends of the same valley. We came up with the concept of La Fée X.S (Extra Superior inspired by Cognac's XO Extra Old). I instructed the new distillations to be based on wine alcohol, and to distil using the EEC Council Directive 88/388/EEC guidelines on Amers (Bitter Spirits); enabling a much heavier weight of local Grand Wormwood to be used in both products. According to this document Amers can contain up to 35PPM Thujone (Spirits are limited to a maximum of 10PPM) resulting in a distillate with more depth, character and complexity. The inclusion of this larger amount of wormwood requires a more complex approach, with other herbs, to balance the natural bitterness of said wormwood.
La Fée XS Francaise & La Fée XS Suisse
It took a year (and quite a few trips) to finalise the project, and it was only in the final months that both distillers became aware of the dual project - as I suspected, with this industry being so small; both were respectful of the others talents as a Master Distiller and were, in fact, acquaintances. Both these products have since proved world-beaters, invariably racking up the highest awards whenever entered into a competition, fully justifying the La Fée Eye our mark of excellence.
*NB:Unfortunately for Americans, Canadians & Australians, the Ultra-Premium La Fée X.S range (being Amers) is considered too strong on the Grand Wormwood front, so is not commercially available in these territories.
Part 2: The Formative Years ...