09 July, 2012

With all the bans on absinthe now lifted, the traditional French and Swiss producers are now free to re-invent the category for the 21st century. Hamish Smith investigates

THE FORTUNES OF THE GREEN FAIRY are finally looking up. In 2012, absinthe is facing its first full year of recognition as a global spirits category since the early 20th century. The period of government-dragooned illegitimacy – a reaction to absinthe’s so-called psychoactive powers – is over, and there’s a new wave of liberated producers pushing the category forward. With the anti-absinthe propaganda campaign ending, brands will be hoping for a fairy tale beginning.

In May last year, the final statute preventing the sale of labelled absinthe was removed in France making the category fully legitimate. The French defence was the last to fall. Over the past seven years, bans have been lifted across absinthe’s traditional markets of Europe and America. But it is in the motherlands of France and Switzerland that the category’s liberty could matter most. If consumers in these markets re-embrace their distilling heritage, absinthe’s prowess could once again be unlocked. Reportedly talks about creating a protected and defined status for the spirit are abreast in the EU, with a vote expected to take place later this year. 

Consumer perception is the last obstacle to category credibility. Ian Hutton, absinthe historian and owner of Liqueurs de France, dispels the oft-mooted mind altering effects of absinthe. “We worked out that to get a cumulative dose of thujone [the compound found in wormwood – an ingredient in absinthe] you would have to drink 40 70cl bottles – which you couldn’t because you would die of alcohol poisoning. Chemists have analysed that dangerous levels of thujone are actually very difficult to achieve by proper distillation because there’s just not that much in the plants.”

The point of difference

So in that sense, absinthe is a spirit like any other. But while the psychoactive myth was indeed a curse to the category and led to its ban, its departure leaves absinthe rather short on differentiation. If hallucinations of green fairies are no longer the pull for consumers, what is?

“Absinthe has its own unique character and properties which set it apart from other spirits,” says La Fée’s managing director and owner George Rowley. Hutton echoes the point: “Proper absinthe is a premium spirit made from pot stills and is expensively produced. The French and Swiss distillers have a historical pedigree and it’s a category with regional character.”

To simplify, absinthe comes in two major forms, blanche – traditionally the Swiss style – and verte – more associated with France. The herbs used are often, though not always, predicated on the ‘holy trinity’ combination of wormwood, anise and fennel. They are either distilled with the spirit or macerated after. Blanche absinthe is the clear spirit produced at the end of the process, while verte involves an added period of herb steeping for extra colour and flavour.

Juli Falkoff, brand director of Pernod Absinthe at Pernod Ricard USA, argues that absinthe’s selling point is not just about the liquid, it can be the back-story too. “Pernod Absinthe specifically has a rich history via its association with the arts as it inspired artists and writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the flavour profile and high proof make the absinthe category an acquired taste for some.”

The alcohol content, which is commonly 50%-70%, is indeed an issue. “The abv is a stumbling block for the producer,” says Jeremy Hill, chairman of Hi-Spirits and co-founder of Czech-produced absinthe Sebor.

“Genuine [green] absinthe needs to have an abv of higher than 45% to keep the herbs in solution. But 45% for operators is very much on the high side of what they want to sell. The challenge is to get a herbal absinthe that could work at a lower abv – something like a 30%-35% – an absinthe light.”

It seems Straight Up Drinks has been listening. It has launched Rotweisser, a 30% abv wormwood herbal liqueur to multiple international markets.

The absinthe renaissance in the past few years has been more about the re-establishment of hand-crafted spirits true to the French and Swiss traditions. Unlike, it could be said, the first wave witnessed in some markets more than a decade ago.

Quality control

In 1998 dubious quality spirit flavoured with essential oils and coloured with additives spread from the Czech Republic to markets such as the UK. “The poor products that were irresponsibly marketed in the UK 10 to 12 years ago you don’t see anymore – there’s been a switch to higher quality absinthe,” says Alan Moss of La Clandestine. “There was a big disappointment with the first wave of absinthe, people would drink it and not see the Green Fairy. This time around – the real rebirth – people are discovering that absinth works in cocktails, in a fountain and as a shot”

If absinthe can peal off its novelty label and join the stalwarts of the back bar it will need to communicate its new identity. “While it is not a mainstream category, absinthe is finding its niche, particularly in bars that truly understand the flavour profile, the spirit category and the mixability options behind our brand,” says Pernod Absinthe’s Falkoff. The herbaceous taste profile and aromatics should be enough of a pull for mixologists. In London, the Brompton Bar & Grill serves three types of absinthe served with a water fountain and four dedicated absinthe cocktails, most notably Death In the Afternoon, a mix of champagne and absinthe.

La Clandesine’s Moss spends much of his time educating the trade. “There’s been a misinformation campaign like in the early 19th century. The idea that thujone is a hallucinogen has been the most harmful thing to the category. It’s an obstacle, but we will win.”

While listings in cocktail bars may be enough to defibrillate the category, producers will have to widen the net if substantial sales are to be achieved. That absinthe volumes are not tracked by major data researchers, is an indication of its present size. Absinthe brands seem equally at a loss as to the scales of the category, with estimates ranging from 50,000 9-litre cases to 250,000 cases.

Perhaps then, a collective target of 1 million cases could be achieved? “We are only just scratching the surface,” says La Fée’s Rowley. “With the dynamics just changed: all major bans lifted, a major player (being Pernod Ricard) stepping up to the plate, 1 million cases per year should be easily surpassed. Absinthe is green for go – and it’s only going one way, enjoy the ride – La Fée will.”

And why not? Absinthe has surely ridden the hard road. If it can make a smooth transition from novelty to quality in the minds of consumers, it will be downhill pedalling from here on.

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