Thursday, 15 October 2009

Absinthe Ben: Opinion-Former and Absintheur Supérieur


As of 4:36 PM EST The Absinthe Review Network website is officially live! I'd like to thank my fellow absintheurs for the feedback, encouragement, and willingness to spread the word over the last several months. Many thanks also to the guest reviewer submissions, it has helped provide a consistent flow of content in the weeks leading to today."

Two years ago, the words above first appeared on PC screens across the world (click on the image to read them all). At the time (just a few months after I started this blog), I was not too aware of Ben Lopez, aka Absinthe Ben, although he has well aware of La Clandestine. In fact La Clandestine made the second ever comment on the Absinthe Review Network page on MySpace way back on June 9th, 2007 and we corresponded regularly after that.

In September 2007, however, Ben launched the Absinthe Review Network (aka TARN), an excellent site that now enjoys a top 5 rating on Google for a search for "absinthe reviews." And in recent months, he has added the Absinthe Review Network Forums, expanded his presence on Twitter, and continued to hound those whose standards of what is and what isn't absinthe differ from his (and, in all likelihood, mine).

Ben is one of those rare individuals who puts in all this work, primarily for love. OK, there are now one or two advertisements on TARN, but they are unlikely to cover the expenses. So knowing that TARN is currently celebrating its second birthday, I contacted Ben to find out more about him, about his vision for TARN and for absinthe, and to discover what drives him.

Tell me about yourself, Ben.

You know, I always loathed this question during job interviews, too! But if I must. I've lived here in Michigan most of my life (just south of this "Speedle" fellow), softly weeping every bitter-cold winter that I attempt to make it out of the driveway without sliding into the mailbox. When it comes to bringing home the bacon, I've ventured into a lot of different career fields, from an editor of a local publication, to being on the creative team of a moderate-sized pro wrestling organization. Right now, I do freelance Promotions and Advertising, mainly for MMA/wrestling events and concerts, though I do have a few individual clients I'm working with as well. We had a great turnout for a comic book convention recently, which was a first for me, so I'm glad it was a hit. When I'm not working, you'll find me drinking, enjoying leisure activites like bike riding or a tipsy stumble through the park, or playing too much Sega Genesis. Fun fact: I have a bad habit of passing out on the floor before getting a chance to turn off the lights, so my electricity bill is quite high...

And how did you get into Absinthe? Dare you tell me about you first experience with the Green Fairy?

It's been about 7 years now, but I remember the gist of it well enough. I was on my computer listing auctions on eBay one afternoon, as I was big into selling at the time, when a friend of mine stopped by and mentioned something about it. Now, I had heard the name "absinthe" before, but could only vaguely recall what it was. So both our interests had been sparked at that point, and we were determined to buy a bottle of this crazy stuff. We should have done some proper research for a reputable vendor, but as impatient as we were, we figured "Heeey, as long as we're on eBay right now...", and after some digging, we did indeed find someone that was discreetly selling absinthe. They had Tabu 73 and a mini bottle of some Czechsinthe, and naturally were looking for a large bottle, so we decided on the Tabu 73. Yup, my first absinthe was Tabu, ... off eBay. Total crap, and really quite embarrassing in retrospect, but on the plus side it did louche, at least.

We got it in after an absurdly long wait, almost 9 weeks, and tore into it at 3 PM in the afternoon. We did a bit of halfhearted research on it beforehand, but must have stumbled onto the wrong site, as I remember trying to burn the sugar. The entire room smelled terrible and the half-melted sugar was now cooled and plastered onto the spoons, which we had to scrape off. We both just looked at each other wondering "Do we HAVE to do this as part of the ritual every time?" I was super-concerned about not wasting it after waiting over two months for half a damn litre, so I ended-up pouring these dinky little servings, probably half an ounce. And of course we had no concept of how much water to add, we just saw the 73% ABV and thought we would need a ton, so it was over-watered. My first impression was that it was all-licorice on the nose, and was way too bitter in the finish. Neither of us said anything, but we both knew it tasted like chalk, though were able to choke down the remainder of our servings. After that, we didn't do the fire ritual and it didn't seem quite as bad, but of course we had nothing to compare it to. Once the bottle was empty, my friend told me he was "done with this crap" and gave up on absinthe, but I knew there were more expensive brands out there, and I needed to know if they would be a quality I could actually enjoy. So after that, I ordered two bottles every 6 - 8 weeks, making sure to get a variety from different countries and never ordering the same bottle twice, even if I enjoyed it. I had this "Top 20 list" that I scribbled down on notebook paper, I would update every time a new shipment came in, and had a sentence or two description for each brand. It was then that the idea of TARN came about, but I knew at that point I wasn't ready to review yet. I needed to try more absinthe. LOTS more. I started ordering 4 or 6 bottles at a time and it progressed from there. The year before I launched Absinthe Review Network, I bought over a grand's worth of varied absinthe within a month to prepare myself.

So what is it you like about absinthe?

When I was first getting into absinthe, I think the louche was a big hook for me, I just thought it was awesome. Though admittedly, I was also very curious about this "absinthe buzz" I kept hearing about. As I tasted better brands, I became more and more fascinated by the tastes and aromas and less the superficial things like its louche or enthralling notoriety. I remember the first time I bought a litre of La Valote Martin, I took off the cap and said to a friend "Don't taste this, just smell it, and tell me what it reminds you of", and he gave me a stunned look, replying "flowers!". I was equally amazed that a liquor over 100 proof could have such a magnificent nose without a large presence of alcohol behind it. Also the fact that most absinthes seemed to be naturally sweet and drinkable. I actually lost interest in all other alcoholic beverages for a period, even sake, which I had been enjoying since before I had even heard about absinthe. At this point in my life, I just love everything about it.

Hell, I don't even need a stereo for drinking music. Lock me in a desolate, unfurnished room and I'll sit on the floor happily sipping a glass until the bottle runs dry.

And what is your vision for absinthe, what should it be and where it should be going?

Perhaps I'm dancing around the question here, but as many in the community are aware, I tend to be more concerned with what absinthe shouldn't be and where the market should not be headed. I have mixed feelings, but I tend to get uneasy (to put it politely) when I see these products that are pushing the envelope declaring themselves an absinthe, when in fact they are not. Having no legal definition of absinthe, I am now just as concerned with the increase of "absinthe" coming in at under 50% ABV as I am with anise-free fauxsinthe. Consumers are getting used to seeing brands coming in at 38 - 40% ABV, and that's dangerous. The most notorious absinthe-imitation offender to date has met a lot of resistance from the community, including my own scathing review. But realistically, the ranks of absinthe drinkers that are dedicated to the cause enough to proactively fight against this growing onslaught of fauxsinthe are limited; we simply do not possess the time, nor manpower, to vocally oppose them all. So to answer the original question, honestly all I'd like to see right now is a legal definition declaring the minimum ABV requirement, and demanding that a notable measure of green anise is used in the production. As far the evolution of flavour profiles is concerned, that is up to the masterful hands of the distillers. Quality absinthe finally trickling out of countries like Chile and the Czech Republic is also very exciting.

And your vision for the main TARN site?

Being completely impartial is the most important factor of any review website. Without this quality, what good are the reviews? I think TARN can pride itself on being widely recognized as unbiased, free of any commercial interest, and not afraid to offend with brutal honesty. It is both my vision and pledge to maintain that integrity.

I'm not looking to become the ultimate absinthe resource by any means, but I fully intend to keep pushing forward until our database of reviews is widely referenced not just nationally, but globally. From the regional demographic statistics I've been monitoring, I can see things are moving in that direction slowly but surely, but it will take some time. Regarding more immediate goals, if there's one thing that I'd like to do, it's expand on the user reviews. When I originally came up with the concept for TARN, that's all I wanted. No forums, no features, gallery, interviews or extensive information, nothing else. Just my reviews and the reviews of others. I believe encouraging involvement and feedback from everyone is what will drive the incentive for newcomers to expand their knowledge and continue to develop their palate. There is no joy like seeing someone adopt a genuine passion for absinthe. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I do have a designer working on the main website, which is coming along very slowly, but is looking good. I'm 90% sure your eyes will no longer bleed before the year's end! I'm writing up a few reviews in advance so I can focus on working out some kinks, give some feedback on the new design, and get around to finishing the FAQ page.

Furthermore, I have not announced this publicly yet, so I figure this is as good a time as any; I am currently in the process of appointing a staff for TARN. It's very difficult to do everything as just one person with the number of open projects and volume of e-mails I'm receiving these days. Another contributing factor for this decision was the desire to broaden the field of expertise (cocktail knowledge, historic knowledge, modern knowledge) and range of opinions at Absinthe Review Network. Choosing the right individuals cannot be rushed, so as of now I can't say when the full staff will be introduced, but at least one staff member has already been chosen. Other than that, there are a few other announcements on the horizon, but you'll have to wait and see...

And your vision for the Forum?

As far as the forum is concerned, I'd like to continue having a very leisure environment where people can speak their mind and enjoy themselves without any real formalities. I had intended for the focus to be more on discussing brand reviews, but... (shrug) things don't always go as intended. At this time I have few plans for it aside from making it look and function better, but I'm always open to suggestions. It will ultimately be shaped by the members of our absinthe family that contribute over the years, not me.

And what's diferent about your forum? Why does the world need another absinthe forum?

(Laugh), the world can always use another absinthe forum! If I could, I'd like to give a shout out to Martin and his absinthe forum that has also been introduced recently, the Absinthe Mafia. Believers of genuine absinthe in the Czech Republic have banded together and gather there, it's really quite remarkable. I'll have to ask them their secret, as I have never seen a single case of arguing or insults there. Ever. I guess it just goes to show how a common goal can bring people together like family, or more specifically, as their motto goes, "family of real absinthe lovers". The TARN community is also a family, albeit a more quirky one (smile)! As far as what is different, I made it a point to limit the number of dedicated forum sections to under a dozen. Even as the number of members grow, I see no reason to have dedicated forum sections for every single subcategory. After all, there's not much point in creating 50 separate forums if people are only going to frequent 8 of them. It's a way to keep discussion more intimate and keep the conversation flowing.

Something tells me that "intimate" line will surely get me some prodding in the Off-Topic Forum...

Why should people join the TARN absinthe forum?

Well, I can't promise newcomers our forum will provide any sort of divine revelation that can't be offered elsewhere, but I can promise you'll feel right at home in a casual environment with friendly, like-minded people from all walks of life. Plus, if it is any incentive, I'm bringing back something early readers will remember, the Tuesday Night Drunken Chat Sessions. It's the most fun you can have with a keyboard and a few drinks or your money back.

Do you have any interest in launching your own absinthe at some stage in the future?

I have no intention of producing my own absinthe now or any time in the future, no. Though producing sake commercially is, of course, not off the table for me...

OK, I'll admit it: this photo is staged (I think). Absinthe Ben is not the sort who'll over-indulge in absinthe. Well, maybe only on days of the week that end with "day." I'm constantly amazed by his energy (he seems to be posting on his Forum or on Twitter around 3 am his time), his zealous approach to the rights and wrongs of modern absinthe ... and "absinthe," and his boundless enthusiasm. Had Absinthe Ben been living in 1899, there would have been no "heure verte;" but many a "jour vert"(groan at the bi-lingual pun). Absinthe Ben may not have allowed early twentieth century governments to ban absinthe on such flimsy evidence. And then he would have returned to studying his absinthe bottles. Both from outside .. and from inside.

Santé, mon brave!

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