Wednesday, 18 November 2009
In a recent post, I quoted a California-based buyer who had commented on the slow down in sales of absinthe in the USA. Although both he and I found positives behind the apparent issues, the fact remains that in several key countries around the world, demand for absinthe seems to fall off after the initial surge.
I have seen many countries follow these trends. And the main reasons, in my opinion, have been a variety of poor marketing techniques that have attracted consumers with false promises, i.e.
1. The suggestions that absinthe will produce a significant "effect," over and above that of normal alcohol; the subsequent "drug" association.
2. The burning ritual which many new consumers seem to expect, but which goes a long way to ruin any good absinthe.
3. The targeting of younger drinkers through campaigns that play on their gullibility.
4. The flood of cheaper products which in many cases are not real absinthe.
Of course, not all of these issues are relevant to all countries, but it is inevitable that any false promises will attract consumers who will then drop out again if they discover they have been misled.
So in trying to build new markets for absinthe, it is important to try to avoid these issues. Some companies may find the above styles of marketing can help provide quick volume, but in my experience such strategies will fail in the long-term.
Quick volume? Long-term? The secret of success in absinthe is starting to remind me of the Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare. With this in mind, and with no disrespect to those involved, I decided to look at what is happening in one of the more "mature" absinthe markets, Australia, to see if that could provide some interesting lessons for elsewhere. By way of a background, I have sold absinthe there in the past and have also developed some vodka and tequila business in Sydney.
Australia has a comparatively long history with absinthe: Pernod and La Fée have been there since 2003/2004, and there are several "Bohemian-style absinths" in the retail and bar market, some of which are now appearing in the USA too. I have met or talked with several of the key players in the market over the last few years, and have watched the business develop. Some of these developments have been chronicled on the excellent Australian absinthe blog.
Over that time, there has been one very interesting business which has developed steadily and consistently. Its public face up to recently was a relatively low profile online shop: AbsintheSalon. Unlike some of the European absinthe shops, AbsintheSalon has always focused on higher quality absinthes and has never been tempted to opt for lower quality products. In 2005, they started to import French, then Swiss absinthes (now joined by Obsello from Spain). Some of their imports were just for their online business while some have started to achieve significant success in the main market.
However, an online and import business has not been enough for them. After many months of preparation, they have now opened a boutique and salon (poorly described as a "small pub" in one Australian paper). On November 18th 2009, the Salon opened with this announcement on their website.
For those who cannot read the smallprint, the Salon offers La Clandestine, Nouvelle-Orléans, Duplais, Vieux Pontalier, Angélique, Mansinthe, Obsello and others!
Despite all the work needed on the new Salon, they still found time to talk to me and to tell me some of their story. AbsintheSalon is run by Joop van Heusden and Gaye Valttila. Joop is Dutch but has been living in Australia since the 80's. Gaye is Australian from Finnish stock. They returned to Holland in 2000-2005 for Joop's work (he is an illustrator, and they are are both from advertising backgrounds). When in Holland, living so close to France and Switzerland, they could not resist going on an "absinthe distillery crawl." Gaye then told me:-
"We had always been fascinated with it and its history. When we were returning to Australia we really did not want to be involved too much with advertising anymore so we thought we would educate ourselves as much as possible and make absinthe our new passion. We started off with Lemercier. We just approached them when we were on holiday to see if they would like to export to Australia and they said yes. We did not even have a wholesale liquor licence at that time but applied for that when we arrived home in 2005 and got it within a few months. From there we kept expanding the portfolio just on a small scale."
So how do you see the market and the business in Australia? Why the new Salon?
"Over the last few years we are still loving it ... we thought we need to have a physical presence where people could experience the traditional style of preparing, drinking and appreciating absinthe for what it is rather than mixing it in cocktails. There are plenty of bars offering the same range of cocktails and all trying to have a point of difference but no-one was concentrating on just a section with absinthe alone. There are a couple of bars we supply in Melbourne and Queensland who do spend some time on the traditional service and offer our range of absinthes but it is not their only interest of course. The legislation changed in the state of New South Wales, where Sydney is situated, allowing easier access to a small bar or as they call it here a general bar licence which is actually part of a hotel licence. It is a long process having to go through council development applications and then apply for your liquor licence and of course find a suitable premises with a good landlord and a least a little free rent while you are doing the paperwork and setting up. It has been an exhausting 6 months. We started all the paperwork in March 2009 and were grant the final liquor licence at the beginning of September. Then we had more physical work to do on the place. Being totally crazy, committed and determined we did mostly everything ourselves and learnt the hard way, as everyone does, which tradesmen to never employ again!
So it remains to be seen how we will go, we have had lots of interest with people saying they are tired of the same old cocktails and that they are passé, tired of the "doof doof doof" and not being able to sit quietly somewhere and hear yourself think or talk. Hopefully we will fill a small niche in the market and be able to sustain the business. We hope our passion transfers on to those who visit us."
And here are some of the first photos of the salon, showing how hands-on Joop and Gaye are:
The steady and consistent approach of Joop and Gaye, and their subsequent success is remarkable. No flashy campaigns, no dubious products: just careful and methodical progress, with a lot of passion and true belief in what they sell.
Is this an interesting model for other countries to consider? In the USA, it's probably impossible: importers cannot also be retailers. But it may work elsewhere.
However, the steady approach of Joop and Gaye, combined with their enormous passion, is surely an approach that can and will work elsewhere. Just be prepared if you follow their example: absinthe doesn't offer "fast bucks." You will need time, more time ... and lots of passion.