Part 5: The industry takes note going global with serious consequences
Reborn in the USA
Having opened the absinthe category in 1998, and now selling across the world; we may justly lay claim to having significantly shaped the absinthe market over the past ten years.
Back in 2000, we had initiated serious discussions with Christian Camax in Paris and Madame Delahaye about the possibility of exporting to the USA. This was our biggest challenge to date, owing to the structure of the US legislation which had effectively banned absinthe since 1912. Unlike the European bans which merely prohibited the sale of absinthe, it directly targeted thujone, the chemical element present in absinthe which is released by the distillation of artemisia absinthium, or grand wormwood. The only solution open to us at this time was to distil La Fée in full, attempt to remove all traces of thujone and call the product something other than absinthe. With so many markets available to us within which we could sell authentic La Fée Absinthe, we decided that this would be a pointless exercise. For the moment, we had to be content with filing (in August 2000) the La Fée brand in the USA under "Alcoholic Drinks, Namely Absinthe" probably the earliest recorded filing of an absinthe in the USA since 1912, for which registration was granted in 2003 (registration number: 2,751.670).
Approval for La Fée from US Patent & Trademark Office of Trading Standards
Following this approval, we were motivated to look again at the USA, as we were starting to sell selectively in Canada and the Caribbean. We even went as far as to create a revised version of La Fée, only to pull the plug on the project, and consoled ourselves with registering the now iconic La Fée eye logo (filed 6.8.2003 granted 2006 registration number: 3048554), in case there was a breakthrough
At the end of 2006, the breakthrough we were looking for suddenly arrived. The US Government, acting on the recommendations of the JOINT FAO/WHO FOOD STANDARDS PROGRAMME [CODEX COMMITTEE ON FOOD ADDITIVES - CX/FA 07/39/12 - Agenda Item 8, December 2006] fell in with EU directive no 88/388/EEC- the same document I had used in June 1998 on permitted levels of thujone. In harmony with EU regulations, the USA lifted their ban on thujone and decreed a content of 10 PPM to be legally acceptable the door to the USA started to open.
Late 2007 saw a new product join the market: Lucid ( developed by a US company ) just beating the Swiss product Kubler with COLA Registration approval. This was excellent news for Absinthe, with the USA market key to establishing any category, as the industry looks to cities such as London and New York for trends and influence. Keeping an eye on the emerging category, I sneaked an invite to Lucids NY launch...
George at the Lucid launch
Finally La Fée would have the opportunity to bring back to the USA the first real absinthe distilled in France since the 1915 ban (distilling since 2000) without having to alter our original recipe. The spirit which we distil in France and serve to Parisians is identical to that which is imported into the USA, which we feel makes La Fée a window into the past.
The Hemingway Bar at Ritz Paris: Tim Ward, alongside the legendary Colin Field, makes his divine 'Red Eye' cocktail with La Fée
In mid 2008 we launched in New York; followed by California and Colorado. During 2009/2010 we rolled-out La Fée Absinthe Parisienne across the USA, with each bottle distilled having its own absinthe spoon attached, to ensure that the correct classic serve is possible and encouraged the spoon is approved by French Absinthe Museum based on an original, made from the highest quality Sheffield Stainless Steel. My company today is one of the few that sells each bottle (of La Fée Absinthe Parisienne 70cl and 75cl) with a spoon and educational booklet as standard. Being part of my global education program to encourage correct serve of this highly alcoholic spirit (traditional strength 68% ABV) that should always be diluted to the strength of wine, or used appropriately in many delightful classic and modern cocktails. Those who insist on shots; please don't use our classic range - following is a paragraph entitled Expanding Absinthe's Grass Roots just for you!
The booklet which comes with every bottle of La Fée Absinthe Parisienne sold in the USA
When meeting with distributors across the States throughout 2008, 2009 and 2010, I was shocked to find that none of the key industry distribution people I met had been presented the TTB directive specially issued on the marketing of absinthe a document any responsible company selling and marketing absinthe should have insisted on sharing with their distribution partners! It's unusual for the TTB to issue such a directive so quickly and so detailed on a new spirit the sooner importers properly advise their distributors of these regulations; the better for the category. Some of the marketing i've seen in the USA strongly suggest some products don't even know this document even exists I would suggest they please read it now, paying special attention to the section on marketing! The USA does not recognise Absinthe as a category, they insist you apply a descriptive to the word Absinthe (sometimes called 'fanciful name') thereby softening its impact in our case we use the descriptive: Absinthe Parisienne for La Fée and Absinthe Verte for NV. This is a typical problem in the early days of a new market sector, as sometimes people new to the industry gain access to a still, but don't have the full picture it's not just about filing a COLA application and selling your version: One company I have a lot of respect for in the USA is St .George Spirits - with their 'St. George Absinthe' (not because it carries my name but thank you!) They did not try to replicate French or Swiss Absinthe in America they went for a totally new product with a brandy base (you have my respect!). Some of the American offerings would find it difficult to expand in Europe, as they are clearly 'dressed up' as French products by name and packaging. A good recent example of this was a product made in South Africa which recently blocked from selling in Europe due to misrepresentation: suggesting by name it was from the French region of Doubs (I believe the product has now relocated from South Africa to this region in France to continue production). Others carry interesting names that might work in the USA, but in the UK the Portman Group(an organisation self regulated by the Drinks industry to promote responsibility and awareness) could find it hard to square with their Code of Practice 'on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks'. America is starting to follow the same dynamics of Europe's earliest Absinthe market (being the United Kingdom) - with a flourish of products hitting the market in the first 24 months. Once the dust settles the industry can establish what works and what people are looking for Real Absinthe: its history, being something of French and/or Swiss origin. The UK buyers started to de-list products as commercial space is limited, and 18 brands/products were quickly reduced to a few. The key players being La Fée (with an estimated 60% share of the UK market and leader in its Duty Free market) and Pernod Aux Plantes d'Absinthe with a few others. The USA will most likely follow this route and see several global brands emerge, with a selection of local offerings like St. George. La Fée's distribution in the USA jumped from 5 to 22 states last year, also winning DUFRY America's Duty Free.
A La Fée Absinthe Spoon - virtually identical to those supplied with each US bottling of La Fée Absinthe Parisienne
Products that do not deliver the true French or Swiss real Absinthe experience will fall usually away from the Global market place as more knowledge filters through. Regretfully we have experienced typical antics from other players new to the spirits market that would spread false rumours the best I came across was that we did not distil using Grand Wormwood(being the core of all our products!) or that we don't even distil. This was potentially so damaging that we started to state distilled with Grand Wormwood on every bottle!
George appearing on the Martha Stewart radio show in New York
Interestingly, one of the incumbent products fired some legal stuff at us the day we launched in Soho, New York: I had just finished an interview for Martha Stewart's radio show on our work in returning Real Absinthe to France and the emerging drink it was like Welcome to America... and here's your legal threat'! We immediately got our Chicago lawyer on it to straighten out their cage rattling I took it as a compliment that they saw us as such a threat, which we continue to be to this day! The lesson to all budding Absinthe wannabies is to focus on the virtues and qualities of your own product/s. We let the consumer decide, and of course the independent spirits judges who are better placed to establish a good product from a poor one. We love taste tests against any competition on a like-for-like basis as we are confident, with over a decade's experience, of what we have put into the category and our folio. With the French Absinthe Museum, Marie-Claude Delahaye and our French & Swiss Master distillers we work with, we have carefully constructed what would appear to be the highest awarded Absinthe folio of this modern era...
Expanding Absinthe's Grass Roots
After years of developing the market with La Fée, and further export from France, I realised many consumers and bars were still missing the Absinthe experience. To solve this problem I needed to bring absinthe in from its niche position within the drinks industry and broaden its appeal in line with today's mainstream drinking culture. I'm not saying that a classically served Absinthe is not perfect it's the time it takes to serve and the cost to the Bars and consumers that restricts it to Style Bars, hotels and those that can afford. The solution required a second visit to the privately owned Schimmel Library; it took close to four years of research and development to produce the perfect mainstream product: NV Absinthe Verte a Grand Wormwood distilled green absinthe at 38%ABV that louches in the glass on contact with ice. The name NV is an abbreviation of Envy; one of The Seven Deadly Sins (also known as the Green Eyed Monster) which for a new audience to Absinthe gave me an abbreviated text-able Brand name NV. Simple! In doing so, I have deliberately created the first Premium-Mainstream Absinthe for the wider spirits market - another milestone in the category. It is the Perfect Party Spirit, whether served straight or with a mixer. It transpires, by good fortune, that NV served with Red Bull or in an NV Bomb creates the most amazing flavour combination, with the two very different flavours balancing each other out and creating something quite delicious - harmonising to give a great finish both male and female paletes enjoy! NV is bottled in Paris alongside La Fée Absinthe Parisienne and truly brings Absinthe up-to-date and makes it more accessible to all.
Again, NV is adorned with the iconic eye logo, made with high quality ingredients and fine grain alcohol.
NV Absinthe Verte, by La Fée - a modern, mixable & affordable absinthe
NV launch event on Carnival Sunday in Trinidad
(Other recent NV launches include: Cape Town, Sri Lanka & Guatemala)
Swiss Distillers over step the mark La Fée race to Paris to help defend Absinthe's Heritage
In late 2009 a group of Swiss distillers based in Val-de-Travers obtained a court ruling from a judge in Bern for the domestic protection of Absinthe for their region (commonly referred to as IPG - geographical protection, similar to AOC law). Quite frankly, we have no problem with this as La Fée X.S Absinthe Suisse is distilled in the very heart of Val-de-Travers. Stopping other Swiss companies distilling outside of this region within this small country is no big deal to most it only becomes a serious issue should they try extending this geographical protection outside of the country.
This landlocked country is most famed for Banks (not so popular with most people in the current economic climate) and Cuckoo clocks - oh and don't forget Swiss Chocolate, Raclette cheese, great Skiing and being neutral! The Swiss judge's ruling is still undergoing a period of challenge that may last a while to challenge you need to ideally be Swiss and connected to Absinthe distilling, or have a domestic legal reason to challenge. The ruling itself is not the issue, as the domestic Swiss absinthe market is very local, with sales to tourists: It is, however, known that the Swiss Government take a strong stance in trying to extend any protected resources (such as agricultural) beyond their boundaries into Europe, even though they are not one of the 27 member nations of the European Union. This could be attempted by requesting the EU to acknowledge their IPG; which if successful would immediately make it illegal for anyone in Europe outside of Val-de-Travers to distil, bottle and label Absinthe. In one stroke, this would brush over French Absinthe's history and café culture we now take for granted: A complete travesty for the Absinthe world as we know it (that's assuming the Swiss take this route).
This serious potential threat has galvanized the FFS (French Federation for Spirit producers) to engage its first meetings for members that distil Absinthe across France (held April 2010). This is not a situation we or any other French distillers can or would accept. I departed to Paris with Marie-Claude Delahaye for a private emergency meeting with Marie-Delphine Benech (of the FFS). As both Marie-Claude and I are not distillers we were unable to attend the official meeting, but we were directly present via the next largest French producer of spirits to Pernod-Ricard at the table; being La Martinquaise - the umbrella company La Fée works alongside distilling 98% of our entire Absinthe in France (based in Paris). We handed over our dossier of evidence showing vital data on how La Fée returned real Absinthe distilling to France (5 years prior to Switzerland joining the Absinthe Renaissance).
France is in a very strong position to deflect any such an attempt in Europe, but because of the French Absinthe Ban of 1915 (even though we have distilled for export since 2000 and domestically sold under the Ban legally as Spiritueux aux plantes d'absinthe) it makes our position weaker and therefore it was obvious to recommend the ban be lobbied for repeal. Fortunately this is the route the FFS adopted and as we publish The People who Pioneered Absinthe's Renaissance the Upper House/French Senate (in late 2010) and now the Lower House/French National Assembly (in early 2011) have voted in favour of this repeal. The proposed repeal must return one last time to The Upper House for their final vote*, which will happen shortly. Should this proceed without any hitch, it will prove a very important milestone for Absinthe:
Firstly it will have the desired effect of ensuring the Swiss Distilleries in Val-de-Travers (by design or sheer blind luck) don't steal the Absinthe industry from France; the Spiritual home of Absinthe. Secondly it will lift the final barrier shadowing Absinthe's Renaissance since this period began, and herald Absinthe's symbolic return
NB: Let's cover a few basics:
1] The Swiss only joined the Absinthe Renaissance in 2005 La Fée Absinthe had started distilling real Absinthe in France five years earlier!
2] Historically; Swiss Absinthe production volumes came a poor second to Classic French Verte and around the world most indications today reflect this ratio - seeing well over 10 glasses of French Verte being consumed to every 1 of Swiss that's being generous to the Swiss as it's probably substantially higher. The only exception to this phenomenon is likely to be within Switzerland.
3] The other big clue is in the loving nickname history gave Absinthe lost to common language and daily conversation for almost a 100 years and reawakened by Absinthe's Renaissance: La Fée Verte (The Green Fairy)... Yes - the clue is in the name! Unsurprisingly it was classic French Verte(Green) Absinthe that dominated the world's markets, throughout the French Empire and her colonies not Swiss (clear absinthe - nickname; La Bleue).
*Yesterday (14th April) saw the French Senate pass the final vote repealing the French Absinthe Ban of 1915. This is a great day for Absinthe; a fitting end to this updated journal we have published in full this week. Great credit from our industry must be given to Marie-Delphine Benech of the FFS, as well as the members of the FFS that supplied support. The irony is that the Swiss Judge in Bern who passed the IPG did the category a big favour as it galvanized the FFS to formulate the first meetings of French Absinthe distillers and producers last April - leading to this historic moment. It would be safe to say Absinthe's renaissance is secured and would justify all the efforts and hard work Team La Fée and others in this emerging industry have put in. We have helped secure this inspirational era of French history and have created a window back to the heady days of artists and writers that who are still ingrained in todays culture often inspired as they were by the green fairy.
'as the final symbolic 1915 Ban falls: Vive l'Absinthe - George Rowley
Looking After the Customer
In this new market, what you see is not always what you get. I firmly believe that education is key, and I am personally committed to doing as much as possible: Presenting seminars to organisations like Slow Food, and at Wine and Spirit trade exhibitions throughout the world. Meanwhile, here are some simple but important guidelines which it pays to remember when buying absinthe.
Driving Global Knowledge for the category: La Fée LIVE
This is a major spirits industry breakthrough; being a privately hosted video-conference bar, based at our HQ in Bayford, which we designed and built from scratch. We can offer direct training on the category to all our clients worldwide. An early session I hosted was with our distributor in Guam (a Pacific island home to a large US military population) - it truly showed how far-reaching the technology is and how we have pioneered the crucial education of the Absinthe category. Since then we have hosted live training with mixologists in Sydney, distributors across the USA, clients in Cape Town and our partners in Hong Kong!
I am insistent that all of our products are clearly labelled to reflect their point of origin and style. Also, clear serving instructions and as much background as possible on each label and gift box. The brand also follows the Portman Group guidelines in the UK, covering units of alcohol and looks to encourage responsible drinking through all forms of communication.
But the most important thing is to enjoy a decent glass of Absinthe, whether it be French or Swiss, knowing clearly where it is made and what it is. Open your mind, look back a hundred years, and enjoy La Fée!
My team and I would like to thank our fellow drinkers, bartenders, enthusiasts and people I have personally met along the way that have and are travelling with us on this incredible journey, for without you it would be impossible to return Absinthe to its rightful place on the back of every Bar...
Special thanks to Marie-Claude Delahaye, Christian Camax and Gavin Pretor-Pinney & Radomir Horacek; our Distillery partners based in Paris & Pontarlier, France and Couvet, Switzerland as well as my personal team at Bayford HQ: Elaine O'Regan, Oscar Dodd, Jane Henn and of course my beloved wife Jane and close family.
Brand Owner La Fée Absintheur and instigator of Absinthe's Renaissance
Part 2: The Formative Years ...