Marie-Claude Delahaye, a French expert in cellular biology-turned-absinthe historian, and George Rowley, an English insurance broker-turned-drinks entrepreneur who speaks no French, might seem like an unlikely pairing. But they bonded over a shared passion for the green fairy, began jointly researching a traditional absinthe recipe and launched La Fée Absinthe in 2000. Twelve years on, they have added to their range with a white 'blanche' absinthe in a bid to expand the appeal of the category.
Marie-Claude, you run the Absinthe Museum in Auvers-sur-Oise. What got you interested in absinthe?
MCD: In 1981 I bought an absinthe spoon at a flea market, just because I liked it. A few people told me it was for absinthe, but all they knew about it was that it was prohibited. It wasn't until 1990 that someone bought me a bottle. It was 100-years-old, made in France, and half-full, but it was very good, very aromatic, pure and strong, and the flavours became engrained in me.
How did it feel being an absinthe enthusiast before the ban was lifted?
MCD: Before I published my first history of absinthe in 1983, nobody spoke or wrote about it. I was alone, nobody was interested, the Internet didn't exist, so I'd go every week to flea markets and spent days in libraries. I found lots of newspapers, posters and lithographs from the 19th century that showed its profound social, cultural and economic history. I started doing exhibitions in 1983, focusing on the objects and the story of the banished drink. Generally I was approached by associations that prevent alcoholism. But it was also the first time much of the public had heard the story of absinthe and it generated lots of PR.
Tell us about the inauspicious start to your relationship.
GR: I first went to visit Marie-Claude in June 99, looking for answers myself. I knew the absinthe I was importing from the Czech Republic was not good. But our initial meeting was exceedingly negative. When I turned up at the museum she recognised me and sent me away, saying they were closed for lunch. Then she wouldn't let me take photos or anything and ticked me off for everything I had done regarding absinthe. I wrote to her three weeks after, suggesting we work together on a traditional formulation and happily she agreed. At the time it was unforseeable we would even get permission to export, but we managed to get approval to distil and export. Three years later, after meetings with the French authorities, we were given permission to distil and label for sale in France as 'aux plantes d'Absinthe', then finally in May 2011 the ban was repealed with a bunch of other redundant laws enabling us to sell in France as 'absinthe'.
Did absinthe deserve to be banned?
MCD: No. At the end of the 19th century thujone was of similar strength as it is today - it wouldn't send you mad or cause hallucinations. The real problem in the 19th century was the poor quality of alcohol that was available and the sheer amount people were drinking. There is certainly evidence that people suffered cramps, convulsions even, but we now believe it was more related to severe alcoholism in general rather than anything particular in absinthe.
What stage are we at in terms of a wider appreciation of absinthe and where will we be in ten years?
MCD: It's still a young market, it's been in its infancy for ten years. In the UK it's still basically a brand-new product as there isn't the cultural history that we have in France. But it feels like last year was the catalyst and it's suddenly taking off. In ten years I hope every bar has a bottle of absinthe. Near the museum all the bars and restaurants have absinthe and even local restaurants use recipes that call for absinthe - it's good for cooking with fish.
GR: Twelve years ago there was not a single bottle sold, and now we are in 25 countries and 15 states. I don't think we are going to see a gin-like 'epidemic' across the back-bar and we won't see every bar carrying six brands or more - I think there's only really room for three brands - but any bar that is even half serious about drinks will need to carry absinthe. One of our biggest growth areas is Duty Free, so it's not inconceivable that there will also be a healthy take-home market in ten years, though we have no idea how big that will be.
What challenges does absinthe face?
MCD: The problem is there are amazing traditional absinthes around but there are also a lot that use the French absinthe story for marketing purposes but otherwise have no connection to France. Once a product becomes popular everyone wants to be a part of it and some don't follow the rules. I have a German friend who collects all the new bottles and he has 800 different brands - clearly they are not all authentic.
GR: I'd agree provenance is key. We'd only recognise something in France or Switzerland. If you are trying to sell it off the back of Paris or the Moulin Rouge but it's not actually made here you are arguably deceiving the market place. What's being looked at with the French spirits federation is what a definition of absinthe should include. It will benchmark what you can and can't do, such as the amount of wormwood in it, the core ingredients - grand absinthe, star anise, fennel, lemon balm, the list is about seven-long - and minimum and maximum alcohol strengths.
Why launch a white variant?
GR: Traditionally the French distilled blanche absinthe but it was a minor part of production and the biggest part was always green. But in Switzerland it was the other way round: absinthe was predominantly white. So to some extent releasing a white absinthe is strategic and naturally completes the La Fée range.
From a consumer perspective, white spirits are more of a growing category and consumers have no preconceptions about them in the way they might over absinthe verte. With blanche, it's no longer about the colour but focused on the herbal mix - there's less anis, the fennel is lifted, there's a greater depth of herbal content and it's more 'feminine'. From a bartender perspective it gives more flexibility and variety.
What's your 'killer' fact about absinthe?
MCD: That it was the drink of choice of the impressionists and that it massively impacted the rest of society.
GR: That it's so relevant to the drinks industry, in cocktails and classic serves. Much of the bar and café culture that we recognise today grew up off the back of absinthe in Paris.