Friday, 29 May 2009
I am not as cynical about statistics as the above cartoon might suggest. But until a few months ago, googling "Absinthe Survey" produced nothing more substantial than a survey conducted in 2006 among 100 young adults in Michigan and Paris; since that predates the US commercialization of absinthe, it was of limited relevance. So I was delighted when The Absinthe Review Network (TARN) conducted a survey among 204 American consumers of absinthe in February/March 2009.
The topline results? While this survey focused on just the 20 or so absinthes already in distribution in the USA, it is very heartening to see that American consumers clearly recognise the quality differences that already exist in the market. It is even more encouraging to note that the absinthe consumer found on MySpace (the more "casual" drinker) is likely to recognise quality almost as clearly as the consumer found on the Wormwood Society (the more "committed" drinker).
Since the publication of the TARN survey, other lists and absinthe Top 10's have been compiled. This article does not set out to analyse them to identify the best absinthe or America's favorite absinthe (we all have our own, which could vary from day to day in any case!). I would, however, like to try to pick out the key issues highlighted by TARN and then comment briefly on those other smaller scale surveys and lists.
Firstly, I'd like to amplify some of the points made on TARN:
1. ABSINTHE DRINKERS ARE VERY HEAVY BUYERS OF SPIRITS, SPENDING UP TO TEN TIMES AS MUCH ON SPIRITS AS THE AVERAGE SPIRITS CONSUMER
"The average absinthe drinker in the survey buys 14 bottles of absinthe each year... Given that an individual in the USA drinks on average just 10 bottles of spirits a year, and that the 14 bottle a year absinthe purchaser ALSO purchases other spirits, the average absinthe drinker" (who probably buys at least twice the average number of bottles of spirits in total) "is therefore clearly a very good target for those selling liquor," whether they be bars or retailers. Add to this the fact that a bottle of absinthe costs 4/5 times that of a bottle of Smirnoff or Jack Daniels, and the attractiveness of the absinthe drinker to American bars and retailers should be enormous.
2. THERE IS A MAJOR UNTAPPED ON-PREMISE OPPORTUNITY
"While retailers have opportunities to sell absinthe to more of their customers, bar owners have even greater opportunities. 93% of absinthe drinkers said that they mainly drink absinthe at home or a friend’s home (this includes dorm rooms). When asked to list all the places that they EVER drink absinthe, only 29% cited bars or restaurants. Clearly, there is room for both expansion and improvement in the bar sector."
While recent trends in the US show a sharp move from on-premise to off-premise consumption, these on-premise figures are below industry average for all spirits. On-premise distribution is necessary to build category and individual brand trial since consumers who don't already know absinthe won't risk $70 or more on something they don't know they will like.
3. THE TOP TWO FAVOURITES ARE BOTH "BLEUES"
Thanks to Leif Rogers for Still Life with Absinthe (La Clandestine)
The survey covered 20 absinthes already in the USA. Given the fact that the survey had a disproportionately high number of very "committed" absinthe drinkers and that many may have felt they should include at least one bleue in their five favorite absinthes, bleue styles may have "over-performed" in this survey. In any case, with La Clandestine and Kübler in a statistical dead heat for the top slot (although the latter has wider distribution), it is clear that love of the Green Fairy includes love of the Blue Fairy too!
TARN goes on to comment, "Among those who have tried 3 or fewer brands, Lucid and Kübler are the favorites. For more experienced absinthe drinkers, La Clandestine was named the favorite absinthe by more respondents than any other brand."
"Nouvelle-Orléans was launched shortly after the survey started, which was recognized only within some of the sub-surveys conducted. Based on this smaller sample, however, Nouvelle-Orléans could well have proven to be one of the top favourites overall, had it had been available from the beginning of the survey."
I plan to look at portfolio selling of absinthe at a later date (there are now 4 importers with 3 or more absinthes: Viridian, Tempus Fugit, Unique and Admiral), but it is already clear that, for consumers,
Viridian* has put together a portfolio which delivers on their mission "to ensure the American public has access to the finest, truest, most genuine absinthes in the world."
4. VIEWS ON ABSINTHES WITH ADDED ARTIFICIAL COLOURING AND/OR SUGAR
TARN writes "Wormwood Society members were very dismissive of absinthes with artificial coloring and/or added sugar ..... Even MySpace drinkers, who are largely more “casual” drinkers often less aware of the quality standard, were only marginally tolerant towards these brands."
TARN confirms that:-
a) Consumers of such brands are very unlikely to re-purchase them, and
b) Absinthe drinkers who have not yet purchased these brands are very unlikely to do so,
thus also revealing the power of internet communication such as forums, blogs, etc in shaping future trial (or lack of trial).
I do have one concern here: namely that consumers who buy an artificial coloring and/or added sugar brand MAY be less likely to purchase other absinthes subsequently. That is what seems to have happened elsewhere (e.g. Canada and UK) but seems less likely to happen in the USA.
More positively there are signs that at least one high profile brand in this sector in the USA wants to move away from artificial color and added sugar.
5. GLOBAL IMPLICATIONS
The US market has clearly developed in a different way from most other absinthe markets, with an emphasis on 100% natural, distilled absinthes, promoted to be drunk in the traditional manner and in cocktails, both old and new. In many other markets in the world, from Canada, UK, and through most of Europe, the emphasis has been on more artificially-coloured products that are flamed, and marketed on the basis of alleged effects. Having sold or looked at absinthe in around 30 countries over the last 5 years, it is clear to me that businesses based on less natural products, and with a heavy marketing reliance on flaming and effects, may not be sustainable in the 21st century. TARN concludes as follows:-
"The future of absinthe for decades to come is being determined right now. What we decide to do-or not do-could be the difference between having readily-available quality absinthe at our fingertips, or wormwood-flavoured vodka at select bars a decade from now. Will you allow the misconceptions and faux absinthe products to continue to erode the reputation of absinthe, or do what‘s within your power to improve it? The decision rests with you."
I think TARN is a little too pessimistic: I didn't see too many signs of the so-called "faux absinthes" having any great success - or prospects - in the US market. Indeed I think that the US success of real absinthes will prove a great wake-up call for higher quality absinthes in other markets around the world.
6. OTHER SURVEYS
After I drafted this article, a number of other surveys and lists of absinthes in the USA have appeared, although none are as detailed as the TARN Survey.
The principal surveys/lists are:
a) The Absinthe Devil poll of 81 respondents in which the favorite absinthes were:
1. La Clandestine (21%)
2. Jade Nouvelle-Orleans (16%)
Interesting to see Nouvelle-Orléans performing so well here (confirming TARN's prediction that it would have done better in his survey had that been held later).
b) The Wormwood Society list of the highest reviewed absinthes available in the USA. In this list (compiled by taking the average review score given by Wormwood Society members), the top 4 absinthes are all US-distilled (Pacifique, Marteau and two Delaware Phoenix absinthes), followed by La Clandestine (the highest rated import), Vieux Pontarlier and Nouvelle-Orléans.
c) A list of 10 absinthes preferred by New York Times wine critic, Eric Asimov, and 3 colleagues and/or industry insiders. This seems to have surprised a number of those who have commented on Mr. Asimov's blog published at the same time. Of the six lists quoted here, the NYT list is the only one to include Grande Absente and one of only two to include Pernod Absinthe in their top 10. Other than that Kübler and all the Viridian brands also make the top 10, but the NYT has not listed the other absinthes that failed to make the top 10 (they tasted 20). Only one US-distilled absinthe (St. George) made the top 10.
d) Mutineer Magazine have published another list of 10 top absinthes (see pages 58 - 63), selected with the help of the Wormwood Society. This list contains four US-distilled absinthes, as well as 4 from Switzerland and 1 each from France and Spain. 3 of the list are not yet available in the USA. Brian will comment more on the compilation of this article soon (I hope!).
e) Finally, Drinkhacker, which has now featured 17 reviews and features about absinthes, re-visited 7 absinthes, and listed 3 other favorites. Obsello and La Clandestine top this list and Drinkhacker adds Vieux Carré, Nouvelle-Orléans, and St. George to his list of the best absinthe brands.” It is especially interesting to see how Drinkhacker has significantly changed his mind on one of the products tasted previously ....
This commentary on the TARN survey was initially intended to highlight the opportunities for absinthe in the USA; the publication of other "Top 10" lists suggested an additional need to get all of those surveys and lists in one easy reference place.
I would be the first to admit my own fascination with lists, whether they be sporting achievements, lists of the wealthiest, best selling, biggest, etc.
Is this list of lists highly significant? Well, topping a list of preferred drinks is no guarantee of success in the market. And top-selling drinks do not often top the popularity lists, especially the lists voted for by aficionados. Patron Silver is the 73rd most popular Silver/Blanco Tequila listed on Tequila.net, but that hasn't stopped it dominating the ultra-premium tequila market!
To me, more than the top 10's voted for or chosen here, the key findings in all these surveys are the focus on high quality, the lower ratings of some of the brands highlighted by the TARN survey, and, most of all, the big opportunities in the US absinthe market. The first two years of absinthe in the USA has been an exciting time for absinthe lovers: the years to come (and the lists to come!) promise many more surprises and pleasures!
To be continued ...
* Declaration of writer's interest: my connection with La Clandestine is probably clear to readers. Note that La Clandestine's US importer, Viridian, is also the brand owner and importer of Lucid and the importer of Nouvelle-Orléans.