Words by: Simon Difford
Absinthe was reintroduced to the UK after some 80 years of scarcity in December 1998 with a launch party for Hill’s Absinth in one of the upstairs rooms of London’s Groucho Club. What followed in the months and years after is best described as being an “absinthe craze”.
Journalists from the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard were amongst those invited to the launch but unusually for hacks there was something of a reluctance to try this purportedly 'dangerous' spirit - after all it was still banned in most other developed countries. I also attended the party but was a tad less reluctant to partake. I talked to George Rowley (the man behind the launch) and discovered that he didn't have any distribution in place. The next morning, reeling with the effects of my first absinthe hangover, I hooked George up with John Coe of Coe Vintners who ended up taking the bulk of the first shipment and becoming the first UK distributor of absinthe since the French 1915 ban.
That day the Daily Telegraph published a front page piece on the launch of Hills Absinth (spelt without the 'e') which caught the attention of Jeremy Paxman as he reviewed that day's newspapers on BBC2's Newsnight at the end of the programme. The following morning George received a call from the BBC asking if he could demonstrate the Absinth-burning ritual on Newsnight that evening.
Aware that he was promoting a spirit that was being portrayed in the media as something of a soft drug with an accompanying ritual - 'sugar and burn' - George set up a program to limit the release of his absinthe to carefully selected bars who had received appropriate staff training. Despite this the 'nanny state' reaction that followed was predictable and the re-opening of the absinthe market was questioned in Britain's House of Lords. Many UK County Councils mistakenly attempted to pull the product from bars only to find themselves being presented with copies of the original EU certificate which vouched for its legality.
When George launched Hill's Absinth in the UK in 1998 he knew little about it and nor did practically anyone else. He became aware that Hill's Absinth may not have been entirely authentic. Hill's claim that Albin Hill established himself as a wine wholesaler in 1920 and soon after started making his own liqueurs and spirits. In 1947, his son Radomil opened his distillery and they maintain that this is when he started making absinthe. The next year Radomil was abruptly put out of business by the communist regime seizing his distillery and taking over production of his vodka and other spirits. He reclaimed the distillery after the Velvet Revolution of 1990 and started producing Hill's Absinth.
There is a scant evidence to show that Radomil was making absinthe prior to 1990 and it appears he made Hill's absinth by simply mixing essential oils with alcohol rather than using the distilling method used to make traditional French/Swiss absinthe. Whatever the authenticity of Hill's, Radomil's production of absinthe, the young trend setters of Prague adapting the Café Brûlot sugar burn serve and George Rowley's subsequent discovery of it were all key steps in the eventual rediscovery and legalisation of authentic French/Swiss absinthe.
Sadly for George, all his slow measured strategy achieved was to create an unfulfilled demand which was quickly exploited by imitators. Within 18 months of the Groucho Club launch, the UK market was awash with crude, high-alcohol, garishly-coloured, me-too products from the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Poland and Hungary. George realised he had to act fast to save his business and the reputation of absinthe, so in 1999 he embarked on campaign to source genuine pre-ban absinthe, ideally by restarting production in France or Switzerland.
George Rowley believed he had established a legal precedent. If a product could be legally sold in one EU member state, it could, in theory, be sold in all of them, unless a state had specifically addressed the issue in the Maastricht Treaty. Fortunately for absinthe lovers, he was right and France had overlooked its absinthe ban and no provision for it was made in the Maastricht Treaty. Whilst unpicking the terms of the 1915 ban, George discovered that the French had only prohibited the selling of absinthe in France, and not the distillation of it. His persistence would eventually lead to the French legalisation of absinthe.