Thursday, 30 December 2010

Real Absinthe: 2010 Review & 2011 forecast

At the end of 2007 and 2008, I published posts reviewing what had happened in the world of absinthe in those years and then adding my forecasts for the year ahead. At the end of 2009, I published no less than 8 reports of absinthe around the world, and decided an additional year-end review was perhaps not necessary.

2010 has, however, proved to be another landmark year for absinthe, so I think a summary and some predictions are called for. Here goes ...


After the 2008 banking crisis and the election of a new administration, 2009 was never going to be easy. The emergence of some products that are euphemistically called "fauxsinthes" by members of the absinthe forums certainly slowed the growth of real absinthe in the USA in 2009. These products tend to have a lower product cost, contain added sugar and/or artificial colouring, and can then afford to spend big marketing dollars instead of putting money into the product itself. George W. Bush

apparently said, “You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” In 2009 some people were fooled, but by the end of the 2010 it seemed that at least one notorious "fauxsinthe" could no longer fool anyone and was on the way out. Some of the other low specification products that falsely claim to be absinthe are still around but most have made little impact.

Partly as a result of the failure of these products, they are no longer clogging the market as in 2009 and there are signs that some real absinthes are now able to expand availability as demand for real absinthe starts to pick up again.

The survey conducted by Absinthe Devil in Spring 2010 came just as the market started to recover, but showed that the favourite brands of absinthe lovers were not necessarily always those that were found in most shops or bars. La Clandestine, Nouvelle Orleans and Meadow of Love achieved the highest “have bought, will buy again” scores in that survey, but the last two of these, in particular, remain difficult to find. As Absinthe Devil reported: "retailers/bars are missing the opportunity to stock absinthe aficionados’ preferred brands."

Wormwood Society Review Editor Brian Robinson (who has also contributed here in the past) has written extensively in recent years on what he and others consider to be a real issue in the promotion of absinthe in the USA: telling the truth and promoting the category responsibly.

At the end of 2009, he wrote about Pernod's claims to be the creator of absinthe; there continue to be rumours that Pernod may react positively to such criticism (and to the April Fool's Day posts!) by re-introducing an absinthe closer to their famous pre-ban product.

In 2010, he also targeted Crillon, the importers of Absente, Grande Absente and Ordinaire. He followed that post with an article in the Mutineer Blog. To date there has been no response to Brian's posts about Crillon (apart from banning him from their Facebook page). Media management is a tricky issue, but, in my opinion, ignoring media criticism is not the best option.

Issues like this are behind the "but" in the headline to this section; thankfully there are not too many other "buts." Le Tourment Vert launched pre-mixes, one or two popular absinthes have almost disappeared from the US (but should re-appear in 2011), and the flood of new absinthes gaining approval has slowed dramatically (maybe that's also good news if it keeps lower quality products out?). La Maison d'Absinthe, one of the top absinthe accessory shops in the US, seems to have closed down.


This is not yet a universal trend, but the signs are highly positive, especially in the UK, Canada and Australia. Various factors have led to this, including the UK launches of well-reviewed absinthes, such as Butterfly

and Maison Fontaine

before they have been launched in the USA, the receptiveness of progressive bars such as Purl, London and Le Lab, Montreal to real absinthe, consumer pressure in Canada, and real innovation from Absinthe Salon in Sydney. Of course the fact that real absinthe seems to be an ongoing success in the USA has also helped with local bars and retailers (especially in other anglophone countries) now realising that real absinthe has much more to offer, both as a sophisticated drink on its own with water, and in both traditional and modern cocktails. This trend is spreading, albeit gradually, to countries like the Czech Republic and may even start to impact on France when the new regulations allowing absinthe to be called "absinthe" come into force in 2011.

The second half of 2010 saw the growth of real absinthe spread to Asia with at least two companies following the examples of European online shops: Absinthe Tokyo will soon be followed by Absinthe Asia.


Before coming to my forecasts for 2011, maybe I should review my last forecasts. To get some perspective on how accurate future forecasts might be. My last review examined my forecasts for 2008 (largely correct) and made new predictions for 2009:

1. More multi-nationals will enter the absinthe market in 2009, probably through acquisition. Apparently wrong (so far).
2. US absinthe prices? Impossible to forecast, with the forces of dollar depreciation and US recession/local production finely balanced. Correct!
3. Absinthe consumption in the USA? Highly dependent on prices and the general recession. Mmm ...
4. Absinthe outside the USA. With the resurgence of absinthe (especially real absinthe) in the USA, bartenders around the world are looking at the sector with new interest. Spot on!
5. Internet sales to change dramatically. Maybe not as dramatically as I expected, but some shops have closed (eabsinthe) and other local shops (e.g. in Asia) have started up. Amazon now sells absinthe in many countries (excluding the US and Canada).


I was reading the forecasts of a drinks colleague from Linked In: he highlighted the strong growth in artisan spirits companies, the continued global development of cocktails, quality as the new "bling," and the role of social media to support strong promotions. Hard to disagree with these forecasts, and it is interesting to see that, in many cases, absinthe is already benefiting from these. So let's use some of those as the basis for my forecasts and then add my own:


Globally hand-crafted absinthes will continue to grow, with existing brands launched in more countries, and new local absinthes produced in some surprising countries (one recently launched in South Africa). I doubt, however, that the USA market will be big enough for all the hand-crafted absinthes already available there, and some of those without a real point-of-difference or a very strong local following may fade away or disappear completely in 2011.


Some purists continue to prefer the classic absinthe serve to cocktails, but globally absinthe will continue to benefit from the support of local mixologists. The appearance of

three absinthe cocktail books in the USA in 2010 was very significant, even if at least one of the books only appeared with the benefit of corporate sponsorship. In my opinion, "A Taste for Absinthe" (shown here) is the best book to buy.

Outside the more "sophisticated" bars in each major city, absinthe cocktails don't need to be too complicated; indeed there IS an argument for keeping them simple.


Over the last few years, some "absinthes" have focused more on style than on substance, or have put more into marketing than into product quality, or have been hyped for their alleged thujone content. In most cases, such approaches have proved ultimately unsuccessful. The move to quality will continue, and it is possible that some of yesterday's worst offenders will join this trend by launching better products in future.


I was by no means the first to adopt the social media, but I strongly believe in the power of Facebook and Twitter, especially for the type of absinthes that I see succeeding in future.

BUT .... social media is not a cost-free, easy-to-run option. In 2010, I have observed two big absinthe brands stop all communication on Facebook (it may be better to close the page down, rather than to give an appearance of rigor mortis). I have seen others simply link their accounts on these two sites (lazy and completely counter-productive in my view). Using social media just to make announcements will not work either (God gave you two ears, and one mouth: use them in that ratio!).



US performance and the renaissance of real absinthe now evident elsewhere will encourage more mainstream distributors to sell absinthe in other countries, and as a result more retailers and bars will stock more absinthes. This MAY lead to bigger marketing companies entering the sector through brand acquisition, but buyers' budgets and sellers' aspirations may not yet meet up!


Canned absinthe pre-mixes are being sold in the USA, in Russia, in Australia and even, apparently, in Lebanon. I am not convinced that these will work, unless they have a strong parent brand (in the way that Bacardi Breezers had Bacardi parentage). More interesting to note that Liqueurs de France were selling

a Chocolate Absinthe Liqueur online, and that Artemisia are selling an "Absinthe aux oeufs" (currently only in Switzerland).

Lower alcohol-content extensions have not worked well in the US market to date, but are more evident elsewhere. I see no reason why that trend should not continue.


For Americans, several absinthes continue to be much cheaper online from Europe than from shops in the USA. I cannot see that as being sustainable. I am aware of changes of ownership (partial or total) of three European shops in 2010, which must indicate something! The sellers evidently agree with me ... the buyers evidently don't! I think some online shops will go more "local" (e.g. Tokyo, Asia), while others try to expand their portfolio and/or launch new internet exclusives. The latter trend will continue to hurt operators who fully support their local importers and/or US-based artisanal producers who cannot compete with EU-based shops.


The success ratio of new products is usually quoted as being less than 50%, sometimes even lower. I don't know the success ratio within absinthe but I do know that absinthes launched in the US without a really strong point-of-difference or story will not work. I have seen failures of new absinthes that make claims along the lines of "specially formulated to work in cocktails," or "with less anise," or "with maximum thujone content." And I am sure I will see many others making similar mistakes in 2011 and beyond.


In previous years, I have awarded honorary prizes when making my reviews. Over the last 12 months or so, there have been many notable contenders such as:

Best book: A Taste for Absinthe

Best innovation: Absinthe Salon, Sydney

Longest time to re-launch: Butterfly, discontinued in 1920, re-launched in 2010!

Rumour/Hoax of the Year: The re-launch of the original Pernod Fils recipe.

etc etc.

As a somewhat biased insider, I don't believe I should make such awards in future, so I shall just raise a glass (or two) to salute all those who make, or sell, or drink real absinthe. Santé and happy 2011!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Absinthe: strudel, eggs, and molecular mixology

In 2010, I have travelled to Russia, USA, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Switzerland, France, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. And I have been up and down to London many times too. 11 countries visited, not all on absinthe business, although by early 2011, 9 of them will be selling La Clandestine, Butterfly and other absinthes that I represent.

It's been a very interesting year, during which I have seen other companies joining me in trying to establish an international market for premium quality absinthe, and also seen some of the worst examples of blatant opportunism (not to say, lies and outright deceit) by others who have no love for absinthe and are driven by just the bottom line. In the past, that has led to fake absinthes dominating the sector in countries like the Czech Republic, Russia, Canada, and the UK; so it was especially interesting to see how absinthe is changing in these countries.

In the Czech Republic, absinthe remains largely a drink targeted at tourists and judging by comments read in blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter etc, many people still seem to think that Czech "absinthe" is real, is the "best in the world" and so on. In many cases, it seems that it is not the Czech companies themselves that have managed to con the public so successfully for so long; rather it is their international marketing teams working out of their internet vendors. Forgive me if I don't provide links to their shops again: they don't need any help from me!

In recent years, however, another Czech Absinthe Mafia has started, thanks to the work of Martin Žufánek:

Štefan Habulinec:

and others. Martin is responsible for the launch and development of St. Antoine Absinthe, arguably the best real absinthe to come out of the Czech Republic, and he also imports La Clandestine and Butterfly absinthes into the Czech Republic. I was delighted, therefore, when he invited me to an evening at the main "absinthe shop" in Prague

to meet fellow Absinthe Mafia members and to meet the owner of the shop and of the infamous King of Spirits brand, Pavel Varga, seen here with the famous black cat of Pontarlier:

And what an unforgettable evening it was!

Firstly it would be fair to say that Pavel has not been regarded as a friend of real absinthe. Some of the marketing used to promote King of Spirits has been questionable, and, looking at it positively, such marketing will ensure that the brand will probably never be available widely (if at all) in the USA. However King of Spirits sales online as well as in Russia and the Czech Republic probably compensate Pavel for that. And to give him credit, he is a supporter of real absinthes in his shop as can be seen from the displays there

and at the bar:

although the shop staff do appear to need better training (judging by their spelling) ...

Pavel allowed us to taste some new distilled absinthes he is developing (good to see and to taste), and he had some nice cocktails to taste. I liked this

which tasted very much like the Apple Strudel my grandmother used to make (maybe just a little too bitter).

Pavel charmed the members of the Absinthe Mafia

and many stayed on into the early hours of the next day. I am pleased to report that almost no absinthe was burned on the night (maybe only the Staroplzenecky), and no blood was spilled. Maybe no conversions to the cause of real absinthe were finalised, but it was certainly a good step in the right direction, judging by Pavel's new absinthes.

On the next day, I had a few minutes of tourism and shopping ...

and then went to some great bars devoted to serving higher quality absinthes. At Hemingway I met Aleš Půta

and Kateřina Kluchová

who made us some excellent Clandestinos and Butterfly Kisses. I loved the jars used for the Clandestinos

and the way that the sprig of mint on the Butterfly Kiss

looked just like a butterfly!

As for the rest of the evening, what happens in Prague stays in Prague. Although now of course, with the work done by Martin and Stefan, some of the absinthe that is drunk in Prague or that leaves Prague is a lot better than in the past!

Fast forward two days and back to the UK where I was lucky to be probably the first person there to taste Claude-Alain's new product ... "Absinthe aux oeufs," which is a kind of absinthe egg-nog.

Currently this is only sold in Switzerland (and mainly at the distillery) because its natural ingredients don't give it a very long shelf-life.

We tasted the Absinthe aux Oeufs two days again later at Purl, one of London's top bars, whose current drinks specials are shown at the top of this article. We agreed that the Absinthe aux Oeufs is an excellent, very complex product, but maybe just a little sweet for some palates (fortunately my wife and I both love it, so more for us!). Purl is a leader in "Molecular Mixology", so it was a real pleasure to watch Tristan Stephenson and his colleagues at work. Tristan shared two cocktails with us, including the Green Fairy Sazerac which is topped with a "Butterfly Absinthe Air." Absinthe lovers tend to be very traditional in their thinking and thus have to respect how a Sazerac is normally made (using an absinthe rinse which is then discarded). How they must hate to do that!

Tristan's take on the Sazerac introduces absinthe at the very end of the process, making it the first thing you taste. The Butterfly Absinthe Air is made using a fish tank aerator

and lecithin to "froth up" the absinthe which is then added as a topping to the final drink.

Of course there is not much absinthe in the finished drink itself, but this process does give the cocktail a good absinthe taste at the beginning of the drink and is an excellent twist on the original Sazerac.

Tristan then shared another absinthe cocktail with us, this time using a very liberal serving of La Clandestine. Since it's not yet on the menu, I won't post too much about it here at this stage but will whet your appetites by saying that it plays with colours as well as with tastes and will certainly prove very popular. Oh, alright, here's a teaser ...


So .. an interesting month in which I've met absinthe lovers in Prague and London, witnessed absinthe drunk the correct way in Prague with the most surprising company, and enjoyed some amazing drinks in both cities. If enjoying absinthe can continue to be developed by the likes of Aleš, Kateřina and Tristan (and if Pavel develops his distilled absinthes), maybe the future of absinthe will indeed be amazing.

Cheers, santé, na zdraví!