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Absinthe renaissance

Words by Simon Difford

George Rowley brought absinthe back to the UK after it had been assumed banned for 80 years. It is beyond question that he was also instrumental in restoring absinthe's legal status in France, the European Union and the wider world. His La Fée Parisienne was the first Grand Wormwood absinthe to be distilled in France since the 1915 ban.

George was a city boy, working as an international claims broker at Lloyd's of London, specialising in high risks such as terrorism, riots, tsunamis and cyclones the world over. In 1992 this took him to Prague where he became a consultant for a large broking house covering the Czech and Slovak Republics.

While living in Prague, George understandably fell in love with the city, and in particular, its full-flavoured Czech pilsner beers. This led him to set up his first company, Bohemia Beer House Ltd (which now trades as BBH Spirits), with the aim of exporting Czech beer and giving him an excuse to continue living between Prague and his family pad, Bayford Hall in Hertfordshire, England. With the aid of Radomir, his trusted local assistant and translator, he quickly signed up UK rights to beers such as Lobkowicz and Rebel.

Anyone who has met George will testify that he is a man who believes in doing things properly and in triplicate. So when George returned to Hertfordshire to start a drinks distribution network from scratch, he did something that would later prove crucial to opening up the first real market for absinthe. He involved his local Trading Standards Officer, Paul Passi.

When his first fourteen-wheel truckload of duty-paid beer arrived in 1996, it caused something of a commotion as the winding lanes of his village were not accustomed to heavy goods vehicles, not to mention their non-English speaking Czech drivers. The beer was transferred to the cellars of Bayford Hall by an improvised scaffolding board chute laid over the stairs.

To comply with European labelling legislation, as outlined by his friendly Trading Standards Officer, George opened every case and, by hand, glued a back label with the required information to each bottle. By 1997, George was also selling Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur, alongside the beer to top-end London bars, but his offering was about to get much more interesting.

In early 1998, George came across Hill's Absinth (without the 'e'), at that time only available in a few Prague bars. Naturally, George set about trying to procure the import rights and during his initial meeting at the distillery learned that the producers had been supplying a private UK buyer and absinthe enthusiast called John Moore, of Black Box Recorder and The Jesus and Mary Chain fame. George had already seen an article John had written for The Idler where he described stumbling across absinthe whilst on tour with his band in Prague.

John had only been importing a handful of cases for personal consumption and private sales to a handful of friends but had set up a company with Gavin Pretor-Pinney and Tom Hodgkinson of The Idler Magazine with a view to commercialising the project. George met with them in 1998, and it was agreed that while they would handle public relations, George would take on the difficult task of setting a legal precedent for absinthe, as well as handling logistics, design and finance. The quartet's new joint venture was named Green Bohemia Ltd.

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Directors of Green Bohemia (left to right): John Moore, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Tom Hodgkinson & George Rowley

The first step was to ensure that absinthe could legally be imported into the UK, which meant establishing a legal precedent with the Government's Trading Standards Agency. George discovered that in France there was a blanket assumption that absinthe was illegal and the issue had been swept under the national carpet.

In the UK, it transpired that absinthe had never actually been banned. Little absinthe was consumed here and the only people who had drunk absinthe were writers and the sort of well-heeled cosmopolitan types who frequented such watering-holes as the Savoy's American Cocktail Bar. In London, it was gin which had led to mass drunkenness, not absinthe. Anyway, when the French ban came into force, supplies of absinthe to the UK literally dried up, and WWI quickly led to its being forgotten.

George studied all the legal issues surrounding spirits and absinthe in the EU and again enrolled that helpful local Trading Standards Officer, Paul Passi, in his battle with a document called EU Council Directive 88/388/EEC. This resulted in the first legal government-issued document on absinthe issued by an EU country since the blanket absinthe bans took effect around the world between 1898 and 1932. It was this watershed document that set the legal precedent for all subsequent absinthe sales in Europe and then America, although at the time it was in respect to absinth (without the 'e') from the Czech Republic, then not an EU member state. This document set the precedent to reintroduce not only Czech absinth but absinthe in general.

Legally cleared to import and sell Czech Absinth, George and John Moore accompanied by Radomir, their indispensable translator and guide headed for the Hill's Liguere distillery to negotiate a contract with the distiller, Radomil Hill, and his daughter. Custom demanded that every contract term agreed was toasted.

Finally, when the contract was ready for signing, a number of stamps were required before it could be viewed as a legal document in the Czech Republic. The party left the distillery at 5.45pm for the five-minute drive to the local notary, whose office closed at 6pm. Slippery cobbles and a (pre-Volkswagen) Skoda nearly scuppered the deal but with minutes to spare, on 9th November 1998 the contract for the first legal shipment of absinth(e) since the bans in the early 1900s was signed.

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Sugar and burn ritual

Celebrating signing the contract, John Moore and George Rowley found themselves sat in the lounge at the back of Café FX, above Prague's Wenceslas Square. It was here that same evening they witnessed their first ever-burning 'sugar and burn' absinthe drip.

The burning absinthe drip is where a sugar cube doused in absinthe is ignited, so the sugar used to sweeten the drink is caramelised. Absinthe is then dripped onto the sugar cube, causing it to dissolve and drip into the absinthe in the same manner as a standard absinthe drip. John and George immediately recognised that this dramatic serving method was the way to launch absinthe in the UK. Although this 'modern' Czech method of serving absinthe is wholly unauthentic, it was this ritual that would go on to capture the British public's interest in absinthe.

The introduction of the 'sugar and burn' ritual is something which will haunt George for decades as well-meaning absinthe aficionados understandably see absinthe burning as sacrilege. And now so does George. However, like the innovative slice of lime in the neck of a bottle of Sol made it the beer of choice in the 1980s, the burning ritual drove early sales of absinthe. Without this ritual, the absinthe craze may never have started, and the Green Fairy may have remained forgotten for another century. Anyway, drinking is meant to be fun and even grown-ups like playing with matches.

It is likely that this Czech burning method of serving absinthe was adapted from the Café Brûlot as this traditional coffee drink calls for a sugar cube soaked with brandy to be ignited. Wherever the Czech absinthe sugar and burn ritual originated, it drove a craze for absinthe in the UK.

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