The People who Pioneered Absinthe's Renaissance
Part 2: The Formative Years
The Door that led to Absinthe's Renaissance:
Guarded by Cleo.
21st July 1998: Setting the Precedent
The first step was to ensure that absinthe could legally be imported into the UK, which meant establishing a legal precedent with the Government's Trading Standards Agency.
Being English proved to be a major advantage. The more I investigated the Absinthe category, and the more aware I became of the nature of the bans in Europe and around the world, the more it seemed to me that there must be a way around the restrictions. In France there seemed to be a blanket assumption that absinthe was illegal and that was the end of the discussion. The issue had been swept under the national carpet once and for all, though small private concerns possibly continued to operate illegally in the hills.
But as we very soon discovered, the United Kingdom had never banned absinthe. Gin was considered a much bigger problem here in the early 1900s, and the only people who drank absinthe were writers, adventurers, aristocrats and the sort of well-heeled cosmopolitan types who frequented such watering-holes as the American Cocktail Bar at the Savoy Hotel, or popped across to Montmartre, the Soho of Paris, for a bit of fun and more!
I already had a good working relationship with Hertfordshire Trading Standards Officer Paul Passi. I knew, both from my own experience and our research, that we would probably have only one shot at importing absinthe responsibly into Europe and the UK. We had to get it right. The key was to study all the legality issues surrounding spirits and Absinthe in the EU. I explained to Paul at the outset that this project would be controversial, so I requested that we 'throw the EU and UK legal booze book at it'. This was the start of my long and meaningful relationship with a document called EU Council Directive 88/388/EEC - in my application of this directive to Absinthe I had created the benchmark all commercial Absinthes follow today, crucially covering Thujone.
Left: The EEC directive outlining maximum legal limits for thujone
Right: The first test approval documents (using this directive) linking thujone with absinthe
My work with this document allowed us to open up the absinthe category for Europe and to set the precedent which enabled us to distil again in France, and to export La Fée throughout the world. The net result of our work was the first legal government-signed document on absinthe issued by an EU country [ and probably any country ] since the blanket absinthe bans took effect around the world between 1898 and 1932 legally enabling people to drink real Absinthe again the world over!
This watershed document set the legal precedent for all future absinthe in Europe, America and beyond, though this was done at the time in respect of absinth from Bohemia, in the Czech Republic, which in 1998 was still not a member state of the EU.
1998: Signing Up the Still
Legally cleared to bring Bohemian absinth in from the cold, I embarked on the next stage of our bizarre journey, which was to see the distiller and do the deal that would lead to the first commercial release of Absinth in the EU since the bans. This was scheduled for November 1998, with simultaneous launches in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Representing the newly-formed Green Bohemia team, John Moore and I left Prague for Southern Bohemia accompanied by Radomir, our indispensible translator and guide to local etiquette and language. Contracts were placed on the table at about mid-day, and line-by-line negotiations began with the distiller and his daughter. Custom apparently demanded that every contract term agreed upon be toasted, a ploy which immediately aroused my suspicions. The daughter, pleading a slight cold, professed herself unable to face a drop, while her father, the distiller, looked like a man more than capable of drinking anyone under the table. Furthermore, the toasting-glasses were to be charged not with absinth, but a liqueur they made based on walnuts that had an even higher alcohol content - another of the distillery's esoteric oddities which, as I recall, weighed in at 90% ABV, or 180 degrees proof.
This is where John came into his own; matching the distiller shot for shot. Having quite deliberately appointed myself designated driver, I negotiated the contract with the teetotal daughter, ensuring that the walnut liqueur made only the briefest contact with my lips as each clause was agreed and toasted. The process seemed interminable, beset as it was by problems of compatibility with the distillery's older software, ageing PC and floppy disks there were no USB flash drives back then!
Moreover, detailed testing of this Czech absinth revealed the quality of the spirit base to be below acceptable EU standards, and changes had to be made to ensure that the absinth we imported to the UK was made to my higher specification rather than the lesser quality spirit that was sold locally.
But finally the contract was ready for signing, a process requiring an inordinate number of stamps and notarisations in order to be viewed as a legal document in the Czech Republic. This provoked an episode which could have come straight out of the Keystone Cops. We left the distillery office at 5.45pm for the five-minute drive to the local notary whose office closed at 6pm. By now, the distiller and John had between them polished off most of a bottle of the outrageous walnut liqueur; the effects on John of sudden contact with fresh air, further complicated by the torrential rain which drenched us as we dashed to our borrowed (pre-Volkswagen) Skoda, and the difficulty of negotiating the slippery cobbles of an unknown town made it a race against time. But make it we did, with just a minute to spare. Stamps, signatures and seals were duly fixed to the document. The date was 9th November, 1998 and finally, we were on our way.
Pour one measure of absinth into a glass, soaking a teaspoon of sugar as you pour
Set light to the absinth soaked sugar and allow to burn until caramalised
Stir the flaming sugar into the absinthe, allowing it to catch and burn off some of the alcohol
Pour in approximately two parts ice water and stir through, cooling and diluting the absinthe to drinking strength - ensuring all flames are extinguished
Please note the above is a historical reference only and the glass was no more than room temperature prior to touching/drinking - carried out by appropriately trained bar staff taking into account health and safety - We do not accept responsibility for any damage or personal injury - do not do this at home.
Drawings commissioned from artist Xtina Lamb: The cool yet infamous Sugar and Burn ritual
Our next move would simultaneously misinform the world's media and popularise what we call the Sugar and Burn, a thoroughly modern way of serving absinth. It happened quite by chance, as we arrived back in Prague, contract in hand and in celebratory mood, I invited John to join me at one of my favourite Prague hangouts, Café FX, above Wenceslas Square in the Praha 2 district. After settling into the lounge seats at the back, fate decreed that we would witness our first ever burning absinth, something I had never seen in all my years of socialising in bars, clubs and the homes of friends in Prague. I knew immediately, and told John as much, that this was the way to launch this drink in the UK. On our return home we commissioned our iconic Sugar and Burn graphics by artist Xtina Lamb.
George Rowley, with Tom Leighton and friend: Launching Absinth in Edinburgh
Although this modern method of serving Absinth gave consumers, the media and the licensed trade a wholly non-authentic impression of the traditional product, it possessed an element of visual excitement that quickly captured the public's imagination and prepared the ground for the return of absinthe to cocktail bar theatre. It has also effectively allowed us to present two totally different product profiles, Modern (Bohemian) and Traditional (French and Swiss); each with its own distinctive serving ritual, and each completely different in taste from the other.
Setting the Price
The price of Absinthe is, to this day, benchmarked against the parameters agreed at a meeting held in my attic office at Bayford Hall. I knew this point was crucial. If it was too low, the elements which make absinthe special would evaporate as it became the next source of cheap alcohol on the street. On the other hand, too high a price would rule it out for most people. In either case, absinthe's glorious return to popularity would have a poetically short lifespan.
John was still slipping bottles in by post and charging his friends £60 a pop and I thought this too high a price for the trade. We agreed to adopt a standard industry pricing formula, from production cost through to retail, using other spirits as a guide, although Absinthe would clearly command a premium, owing to the complexities of the many herbs and spices which are used in the distillation process.
Directors of Green Bohemia, from left to right: John Moore, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Tom Hodgkinson & George Rowley
The bus carries the La Fée livery - photo circa 2000
Firstly, we had to test the new product against the limits set by the EU template directive which I set up with Paul Passi. On approaching several EU certified test laboratories in the UK, we were surprised to find that they were only able to carry out about half the tests specified under the full directive. The reason given, which I thought most odd, was that since there was little or no demand for the remaining analyses, there was no infrastructure in place to carry this out. We struggled for some time for a solution until our man in Prague, Radomir, came up with the perfect answer. He established that the University of Prague operated a certified laboratory, the status of which would be recognised by the EU, although the Czech Republic was not at that time a member state. The University was prepared to carry out all our tests; provided we agreed to upgrade its testing facilities, which meant obtaining samples of the rare chemical compounds (including thujone) we were obliged to test for, but which the laboratory did not have available. Fortunately, my company was able to source these rare elements from the USA, and from there they were shipped to Prague at our expense. Now absinth could be made and shipped into Europe for the first time since the bans in the early 1900s.
Having made the crucial link between Thujone and Absinthe and set-up and commissioned the first commercial tests on this for Absinthe, we were now ready to test the markets and authorities' reaction.
The first product we considered importing failed on grounds of inferior alcohol quality, I had commissioned a Czech Absinth made to my own exacting standards and my new formula passed with flying colours. We had done it. I had the first legal document signed by any government since the original bans - specifically allowing absinthe in Europe, and the precedent was now set to open up the whole category and to reintroduce absinth: Czech in origin, but without the traditionally heavy anis, and served in a totally contemporary way.
Our first order of specially prepared Bohemian absinth was placed and the date set for a launch party at the Groucho Club in Soho, London, 1998. Tom and Gavin worked the media, covering both broadsheet and tabloid bases by setting up exclusives with the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard. I organised distribution into the UK, while stimulating trade interest with the help of people like Simon Difford, author of Difford's Guide to Cocktails - who knew something hot when he saw it. He put in a good word for me to John Coe, one of the UK's leading Style Bar suppliers and premium brand importers; at our first face-to-face meeting, John, after hearing our story, took half of our first shipment, the first of many.
That first shipment caused much more trouble than anyone could imagine. The whole consignment was seized by German Customs as it tried to cross the border from the Czech Republic, and it was only after faxing documentation from London and confirming that the goods would not go through France that the vehicle and goods were released. This hiccup caused a delay of several days, and involved diverting the load north on a much less direct route through Holland. With the goods frozen and the launch date fixed, one of the papers broke the "exclusive" story almost a week before the date which had been agreed upon. Bizarrely, this turned out to be a stroke of good fortune.
Johnny Depp's love of absinthe led it to take on a role in From Hell (2001)
One of the articles was read by Johnny Depp, who just happened to be filming Sleepy Hollow in Hertfordshire, just up the road from my headquarters. It was on a Friday that the star's coolly competent fixer called my office with the news that Mr Depp would shortly be departing by private jet to spend the weekend in discussion with Hunter S Thompson (about, among other things, a project called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and absolutely had to take a bottle with him. Here was my worst nightmare a potential PR coup of the best kind, and no product! A frantic search of the office turned up half a 70cl bottle. John Moore in Little Venice was reluctantly persuaded to donate what remained of his last bottle to the cause in exchange for a full and speedy replacement. Luckily, it transpired that Gavin and Tom had enough between them to make up the quantity to a just-full bottle. This mad proposition was put to Mr Depp's personal assistant, who immediately despatched a white stretch limo, first to John's pad, then the offices of The Idler in Shoreditch on the other side of London to collect the precious liquor drop by drop. Meanwhile, my back-up stock for the launch a lone case of twelve bottles, sent via DHL arrived, dented but wonderfully fragrant, four of the bottles having been broken in transit. The driver of the limo was diverted back to Bayford, and mistakenly went, not to the hall, but to the village hall, he of course found nobody in. He confessed that this was the strangest collection job he had ever done, but all that mattered was that we had netted, as our first customer, the iconic Johnny Depp. On the other hand, we had only seven bottles for our launch that evening at the Groucho Club, where we had one of London's best mixologists, Giovanni Burdi primed to knock out a wicked Absinth Sour. In the event, it was a phenomenal success.
Alphabet Bar, Soho London.
The location to which GWR delivered several cases of absinth, to be picked up by Johny Depp's white limo.
On the following Monday night, the second media masterstroke kicked in. The Daily Telegraph published its exclusive on the front page of its Tuesday edition, which caught the attention of Jeremy Paxman of BBC2's Newsnight as he reviewed the next day's papers in the final 30 seconds of the programme. On Tuesday morning my office received the kind of call any brand owner would love to get from the BBC. Could we demonstrate this absinth-burning ritual, in which Mr Paxman had expressed an interest, for the Newsnight feature that evening? We could, and quickly found the perfect venue, a funky bar called Detroit, a well known hang-out for people in the bar trade just off Seven Dials in London's Covent Garden. Here I did the demonstration, while the Newsnight research team did a good job on the history of wormwood, and Paris in the era of absinthes golden age. What they did not realise, of course, was that the ritual which we demonstrated was not in the least bit historical. Nevertheless, the incorrect, but über-cool Sugar and Burn routine, which we had adopted as our Modern Bohemian ritual, quickly became accepted practice.
Launching to the Trade
Trade launch was choreographed by signing up a selection of bars (which we had fully trained) to release product simultaneously across their venues, launching at 9pm Wednesday the 9th of December: Absinth goes live!
The ever-cool Met Bar (Hyde Park, London)...
Other venues signed-up included: Detroit, Pharmacy (Damien Hurst designed), K-bar group, Elbow Room, Atlantis, Alphabet, Circus, Buchans, AKA plus others in Manchester, Edinburgh & Glasgow.
Absinth's on its way....