Wednesday, 15 June 2011

La Fée: A flight of the Green Fairy

Our last mass blind tasting of absinthe consisted simply of what we had to hand, and inevitably missed out some likely contenders from the current marketplace. We’re in the process of acquiring samples of drinks that really should be considered—then we’ll probably add the top three from last time and stage another blind tasting.

In the meantime, George Rowley, the man behind La Fée has sent us a flight of his whole range to taste: the original La Fée, now called Parisienne; the Bohemian Czech-style; the two X•S “ultra-premium” absinthes, both Française and Suisse versions; and NV, a relatively new, lower-strength product.

George Rowley occupies a unique position in the modern history of absinthe. He was the first to bring an absinthe back to the UK, in the form of Hill’s, a bitter Czech concoction. I was one of many who spotted a bottle of Hill’s (in my case in Prague) and thought, “Wow, real absinthe”—then, after tasting it, thought,  “Is that what all the fuss was about?” Today George freely admits that he was effectively duped by creator Radomil Hill into believing it was a traditional Bohemian drink, whereas in fact it had just been made up.

But it caught on, and suddenly there was rush of imitators. George’s response was to give up on Hill’s and try to find a way to recreate real absinthe, as would have been drunk in the heyday of the Belle Epoque. He enlisted the help of Marie-Claude Delahaye, proprietor of the Musée de l'Absinthe in Auvers-sur-Oise, and the result was La Fée, the product that is now La Fée Parisienne.

George admits that for a long time his company has been deliberately cagey about what they do and how their products are made—in response to experiences of having his ideas stolen. The absinthe world is indeed extraordinarily political, filled with bitching, mud-slinging and some dogmatic beliefs in what absinthe is and should be. In the few years that I have been interested in this beverage I have heard rumours from more than one source that La Fée is concocted from neutral alcohol, flavouring essences (like aromatherapy oils) and green dye, and is not really distilled at all (even though the label and website state that it is). If you look at a forum like that run by the US Wormwood Society, you could believe that George is the Devil incarnate, a betrayer of the true spirit of absinthe by tricking consumers into believing that a mass-produced cipher is the real thing (in the same way that I myself was initially turned off absinthe by my experience with Hill’s and similar Czech “fauxsinthes”).

To George these attacks are deliberate campaigns of misinformation by his competitors. Who knows? Perhaps they are. But I also suspect that his policy of tight-lippedness has created an information vacuum that is easily filled with rumour.* At this point I have to admit that what you are reading is a revised version of the original post: I emailed George some questions at the time about his range and, when I received no reply, wasn’t entirely surprised—given the reputation for secrecy. But I should really have tried harder to get in touch because, after I posted, George was quick to respond. (It turns out my original email was diverted into a spam folder and never read.) And in fact he was keen to set up a meeting to tell his side of the story.

So two weeks ago DBS and I sat down with him and his Business Development Manager Oscar Dodd. He’s still pretty defensive and controlling, and wouldn’t let me record the interview. (“I don’t like microphones,” he said, eyeing mine suspiciously.) But we were given some interesting details about his products that I’ve never heard or read before.

The technique of making an “absinthe” from a cold mix of alcohol and essential oils is pretty common at the lower end of the market, but George insists La Fée is not and has never been made that way. La Fée Parisienne is fully distilled; a herb bill that includes Grand Wormwood is macerated in sugar beet alcohol, then comes off the still at 78% ABV, before being diluted down to 68% with demineralised water. It used to be made at Suprex near Paris but is now made by Cherry Rocher near Lyons, where they have been distilling since 1705, mostly making fruit liqueurs. The use of beet alcohol is apparently historically authentic—after the devastation of Europes vines by the phylloxera insect, grape alcohol was too hard to come by. Oscar also says that they like the mouthfeel.


A bottle of Parisienne with an
absinthe spoon. If it were viable
George Rowley would like every
bottle to come with one, to
encourage absinthe to be drunk
diluted rather than neat
The La Fée website describes the development of Parisienne as a move to “revive the concept of ‘real absinthe’ of impeccable provenance, faithful to the original recipes and method of distillation”. But of course there is one major sticking point here: the colour. The reason verte absinthe is traditionally green is that some of the botanicals don’t distil well, so they are macerated after distillation, leaving a green colour from the chlorophyll. (Colour doesn’t pass through distillation, so any spirit that is coloured has had something done to it after the distillation process.) La Fée Parisienne, on the other hand, is coloured artificially: they are open about this, but then going into the American market they are obliged to declare artificial colours on the label anyway. There are plenty of other modern absinthes that are coloured this way, including Pernod and Absente, two of La Fée's main rivals. But there are very many modern absinthes, admittedly many of which are perhaps aimed at a more rarefied market, that are coloured in the traditional way.


George is frustrated by all the attacks on La Fées use of artificial colour. Parisienne is a mass-market product: he set out to make a solidrobust absinthe (as opposed to a refined one), of a kind that might have been drunk by the mass market 100 years ago. The problem is that not only is there more regulation today but he feels customers have changed too. The average consumer does expect a product to be consistent. Chlorophyll-based colouring is both light-prone and heat-prone—no matter how dark the bottle it will still be heat-prone. Our product is shipped to 38 countries worldwide, in a variety of climatic conditions: this is the only way we can maintain consistency of colour from batch to batch. We do regularly review our processes to see if there is a way to get the colour qualities we want naturally—most recently six months ago—but so far it has not been possible.” George acknowledges that some consumers actually like the batch-to-batch variations that you get with hand-crafted absinthes, but Parisienne is aimed at a broader market that requires stable colour—and is probably not that keen on the look of naturally coloured absinthe anyway. 

“In best conscience,” he says, “it’s the best quality we can do. We’re passionate about it and we try really hard to define a quality portfolio that meets today’s market requirements.

That market is a complex one, with a broad range of styles, qualities and production processes all setting up shop under the banner of “absinthe”. Some producers and consumers are concerned with nothing but historical authenticity at any cost, others with absolute quality, while some makers want something aimed at modern tastebuds, with no qualms about tradition, but that borrows from absinthe’s mystique. Personally I don’t have a problem with any of these approaches, as long as there is honesty about what is on offer: it’s a shame if a new customer tastes a mediocre or completely inauthentic “absinthe” and comes away believing that that is as good as absinthe gets.

But absinthe is one of those areas, like hi-fi, where those who are most vocal tend to be the hardcore enthusiasts. While it may be commercially meaningless to compare a £20,000 audiophile hi-fi—using vintage valves, rare hardwoods chosen for their harmonic character, handwoven asymmetrically braided silver-plated cables and the whole thing floating on a cushion of air—with a sub-£100 boom box, hi-fi nerds do like to bond in their derision of mass-market products. So it can be with absinthe. 

George Rowley believes that mass-market absinthe products not only service the mass market but also sustain the rarefied markets too. “The industry isn’t going to be here unless you have products aimed at the bar environment,” he says. “Boutique products may accept colour variations as natural but without the mainstream market you will not have a boutique market. The only reason you have all these forums is because of the work Marie-Claude Delahaye** and I did to bring the product back.” Doubtless forums like the Wormwood Society would take issue with this statement, and in any case absinthe never truly went away but continued to be produced and drunk in Spain all through the Dark Ages between the ban and the revival. George does seem pretty miffed for not getting more credit for his undoubted role in modern absinthe history, but a consumer will always choose from what is available now, and you can’t expect to rest on your laurels. Meanwhile, Lucid absinthe, made in France, manages to command some 60% of the US market—without the use of artificial colour. In fairness, Lucid is about £55 a bottle in the UK while La Fée Parisienne can be had for about £37. As George himself says at one point, “you can tell by the price point how something is made”, and ultimately you pays your money and takes your choice.

So what does it actually taste like?

La Fée Parisienne is a vivid green and louches (goes cloudy and paler) when you add water. Neat it has strong anise and fennel aromas, plus the earthy, rooty smell of wormwood. There’s a hint of some dry spice, almost like cumin, too. Add water and the wormwood element almost overpowers the anise. It’s like horseradish without the heat. On the palate it is basically wormwood plus a strong liquorice element. It’s a pleasant enough drink, though rather one-dimensional and a bit rough.

Last February I was asked to be a judge in the Absinthe Masters awards, organised by The Spirits Business magazine. Overall the La Fée portfolio did quite well—on the companys website you can see a curious photo of me looming blurrily through a tasting glass—but while Parisienne received a silver medal for its packaging, in the actual blind tasting it actually scored the lowest marks of all the absinthes present. This is not to say it is terrible, but it was in the company of some very strong contenders. We instantly recognised it, not least from its garish colour (all the others were, I would say, coloured naturally rather than dyed, having muted olivey hues), and its simplistic taste also stood out in a far more sophisticated field.

The spurious, and rather pointless, Czech fire ritual
If entering La Fée Parisienne in that competition seemed an odd decision, inventing La Fée Bohemian at all seems even odder to me. Today George distances himself from the Hill’s days, admits that the “Bohemian” absinth style was a 1980s confection and that  the “Czech fire ritual”—where you soak a sugar cube in absinthe and set fire to it before stirring it into your drink—was just made up as a marketing gimmick. Yet La Fée Bohemian is an attempt to get to the heart of this style, which he defines as having little or none of the aniseed that is conventionally used in verte styles to balance the bitterness of the wormwood, and favouring mint instead. George admits that this is a product born not of passion but a desire to service a market he had more or less inadvertently created with Hill’s. “It’s a nod to the style that made it happen,” he says. “It broadens the market.” Apparently it’s very popular in Australia.

La Fée Bohemian is a synthetic blue-green, reminding me of some window cleaning fluid that I’ve got in the cupboard. Neat it has a sweetish, medicinal smell with a whiff of citrus and a bit of fennel; overall much less of a smell than the Parisienne. Add water and I am reminded of the smell of Humbrol enamel paints from my youth painting Airfix models. It is a resinous, turpentine smell. On the palate it tastes of… well, not much at all, to be honest. Slightly astringent, elements of orange and cinnamon. Crude, bitter aftertaste that lingers unwelcomely.

If this all seems rather damning, hold your horses. We haven’t got to the good stuff yet. At the Absinthe Masters blind tasting there were a couple of categories—“Coloured Amer” and “Non-Coloured Amer”—which confused us. We cautiously guessed that “amer” might be a polite name for some of the foully bitter East European offerings, but it turned out to be a (frankly little-used) EU category that allows a higher thujone*** level than “absinthe”. In each case there was just one entry, and we were heartily impressed. In fact we all agreed the entry for the Coloured Amer was the best product of the whole competition. This turned out to be La Fée X•S Française, George’s “Ultra Premium” verte product. The Non-Coloured Amer was his La Fée X•S Suisse bleu. These are lovingly batch-distilled from grape alcohol. Officially it’s a secret who makes these products—and George himself is unable to comment for contractual reasons—but it’s a pretty open secret that the Française is made for him by François Guy in Pontarlier and the Suisse by Claude-Alain Bugnon in Couvet.

In appearance these two absinthes are pretty similar—both a pale, jade green, but the Suisse is whiter, a rather beautiful colour; to call it opaline is hardly original but it does remind me almost of a fire opal, as if there are flashes of coloured fire within its milkiness. The nose is sweet, almost candied, until you encounter a sour-rubber bloom, but also fresh in a sappy, menthol sort of way. It’s worth lingering over the nose, as new things keep emerging. I remember thinking at the Absinthe Masters that some of the bouquets were like a walk in the woods, with new smells cropping up all along, ferns and bracken here, flinty soil there, alpine wildflowers there. Even an empty glass that has held the neat absinthe has a smell that continues to evolve.

The palate again strikes you as quite sweet initially, perhaps from the anise which is pronounced. I certainly feel there is no need to sugar this drink. A slightly powdery feeling in the mouth, the warmth of the alcohol balancing with the herbal freshness and the sweet-dry mouthfeel, makes for a surprising complex sensation, with that characteristic nose, that I can only describe as over-ripe buttercups or marigolds, that bleu styles seem to me to have.

The Française has a vinous whiff neat, and seems initially similar to the Suisse but sharper, more peppery on the nose and a greener colour—but a soft, stoney, muted, greyish green, as opposed to the electric washing-up-liquid green of the standard La Fée Parisienne. The palate is sterner, more astringent, seemingly more alcoholic than the Suisse (indeed it is, 68% as compared to the Suisse’s 53%). Then there is that earthy wormwood note. The Suisse is definitely softer, sweeter and more approachable, but both have impressive poise, balance and sophistication. Especially compared to many other “absinthes”, they are both smooth and complex.

At a time when respectable producers are trying to play down the significance of thujone and emphasising that it is not some hallucinogen, why do the X•S products make such a big deal about being amers? “To go beyond premium, you have to do something different,” George explains. “We felt the only way to lift it was to switch into wine spirit and do it as an amer, a category that allows you to go much heavier on the central ingredients. But you have to be all the more creative in striking a balance. The Francaise is more complicated to make than the Suisse—the different ingredients are distilled individually then recombined—but until recently there were actually two types of Suisse, one being for the French market because the French regulate the amount of fenchone which is found in fennel.”

Interestingly La Fée NV comes in an identical 
bottle to SW4, The Gin of Champions
Of course there is a price for all this: the X•S products will cost you over £80 for 70cl****. Moreover, the higher thujone content is still illegal in some markets, such as the US and Canada. How does this compare with the competition? Our favourite in the “Coloured Spirit” category of the Absinthe Masters was Studer Original Swiss Absinth, which is a verte from Switzerland, though, I seem to recall, it’s not really very green at all. As far as I can tell, it isn’t commercially available in the UK right now. Gold gongs went to Enigma Verte (£40ish) and Libertine (about the same). In the Non-Coloured Spirit arena, the top dog was Blanche de Fougerolles (about 50 Euros—not sure if you can buy it in Blighty either) followed by Enigma Blanche (confusingly, now apparently the same product—at the time of the tasting they would not tell us what the samples were, so I’m going by the write-up in The Spirits Business).

But there is one more product in the La Fée portfolio, named NV (not “non vintage” but meant to stand for “envy”—the green-eyed monster, geddit?—and intended to be “textable”, which gives you an idea of whom it is aimed at). It is bottled at 38% and meant to be drunk simply on the rocks (and engineered to louche in the presence of ice). I imagine its lower intensity might also make it useful in cocktails. It’s a pleasant, approachable drink, but doesn’t have much in common with absinthe. I can’t detect any wormwood (though I gather it is in there): there’s plenty of anise and that warm, dark, sweetness from liquorice, plus something chocolatey. The empty glass smelled almost as if it had actually contained crème de cacao. Of all five products this was actually DBS’s favourite—though he did recently conclude that he probably prefers pastis to absinthe.

“While Parisienne is intended as an authentic recreation,” George explains, “with NV we are more doing our own thing. It has all the primary core ingredients but is an accessible absinthe aimed more at the modern palate.” The key idea was to create something with a lower ABV, partly to make it more affordable to 18–21 year olds and partly to produce something intended to be drunk neat, making it more appropriate for bar environments where there is little scope for education about how higher ABV products should be served. So, cheaper and more appealing to inexperienced palates—a sort of My First Absinthe? “The whole category will only grow if you have entry products like this,” George insists. “NV is the fastest growing product in the portfolio.

There actually used to be a 45% ABV version of Parisienne but it was unstable at that low alcohol level and there were problems with the anise crystallising out. Fearing it was damaging the brand image of the main product, La Fée pulled it. NV has taken four years to develop. It is made with an intense distillation of botanicals and this “concentrate” is then cut with water and grain alcohol to arrive at the bottling strength.

You get the impression that George Rowley is genuinely proud of the original La Fée product, now Parisienne, and smarts when absinthe mavens slag it off. It’s as if he made the X•S products just to show that he can forge a top-notch artisanal beverage if he wants to, but isn’t much enthused about trying to bring such high-maintenance items to the world. Instead, with Bohemian (a product that even the La Fée website seems to suggest is best just for setting fire to) and the youth-oriented NV his focus is on finding groups of people who basically aren’t drawn to absinthe, and creating an absinthe for them. Will this strategy later bring them to “real” absinthe? Watch this space.

As for the basic Parisienne, it’s a simple drink that’s not offensive but it falls way short of what absinthe can be—for a taste of that, try the X•S products. Although you’ll sadly need a second mortgage.

* When I wondered out loud on the Wormwood Society forum why there were so many rumours that La Fée was an oil mix, the reply of Brian Robinson, one of the moderators, was "Because it tastes like it is?" You be the judge.
** Marie-Claude Delahaye is a genuine authority, and most absinthe manufacturers I speak to consider her such. However, La Fée's emphasis on her endorsement of their product should be tempered with the fact that she is also a co-owner of the brand,
*** Thujone comes from the wormwood. You will hear hushed discussions on the internet about how this chemical is the element in absinthe that gives you hallucinations and drives you mad; in truth in high doses it is harmful, but you would have to drink so much absinthe that the alcohol would get you first. I am one who was mug enough to buy a bottle of King of Spirits Gold, which boasts a thujone content of 100 parts per million (ten times the EU limit for regular absinthe), and I can vouch that it has no psychoactive properties.
**** This was a cause of some outrage among absinthe enthusiasts when these products were released, the suggestion being—why pay £80 for the Suisse when La Clandestine, made by the same man at the same distillery, can be found for around £40? Of course it's not the same product, and there are reasons why properly-made absinthe will always be pricey, partly because of the elaborate process and partly because the high ABV means higher duty. But there are plenty of absinthes out there that are basically made in a vat from industrial essences, bulk alcohol and some dye, but which slap on a high price tag because they are calling it absinthe. George Rowley himself has played an interesting role in this: because his products were the first on the market he pretty much set the benchmark. The historical section on the La Fée website notes that when setting the price of the first product they had to take into account that “absinthe would clearly command a premium, owing to the complexities of the many herbs and spices which are used in the distillation process”; but the primary concern seems to have been that “if [the price] was too low, the elements which make absinthe special would evaporate as it became the next source of cheap alcohol on the street”.

8 comments:

  1. Not a bad article, but I must admit, I prefer the original, unedited version. The one you wrote before George met with you to 'correct the inaccuracies'.

    This new article, while keeping in line with a lot of the same views on the product, seems to be more apologist in nature, excusing George for making products that cater to ersatz traditions or skimming over some pretty important facts simply to increase income.

    George seems to make excuses as to why he regrets, yet continues to make a 'nod' to a false tradition that he himself helped create. If he truly regretted it, he wouldn't continue to cater to it. He'd drop it, and try to educate and apologize the people who he has duped over the past 20 years or so. Instead, he continues to make the product, presumably simply because he doesn't want to give up such a lucrative market.

    He makes excuses as to why he uses artificial coloring in La Fee Parisienne, yet, as you mentioned in the article, the largest market share in the U.S. right now is held by a naturally colored product. Is it really that his customers demand consistency, or more that artificial coloring costs much less, and therefore can lead to higher profit margins?

    Further, I simply don't understand how someone can claim to try to be pushing for his higher quality products (the X.S. line), yet, at Tales of the Cocktail several years ago, they didn't even have the products with them. Instead, they focussed on flaming their Bohemian brand. Tales of the Cocktail probably contains one of the highest concentration of mixologists who truly care about quality than any other event in the U.S., yet they eschew their quality products? How does that look to an absintheur such as myself?

    Last, it continues to irk me that they fall back on the endorsement of a supposed unbiased expert like Marie-Claude. She is a very nice person, and knows a substantial amount about absinthe. But she is in NO WAY an unbiased opinion. She is financially involved with the business of La Fee. That's about as important of a conflict of interest as one can have.

    Cheers,

    Brian Robinson
    Review Editor
    The Wormwood Society

    ReplyDelete
  2. I also want to make one point perfectly clear: at the Wormwood Society, we do not damn George for creating a mass produced product. Pernod Fils during the heyday of absinthe was producing millions of bottles a year and it was the gold standard.

    We also are not against modernization of absinthe.

    What we ARE against is misinformation and misleading consumers.

    Our organization is made up of thousands of people from all over the world, who care about educating the public about the realities of absinthe. What it is, and what it isn't. This article makes it seem like we are radicals. In fact, we are the opposite.

    ReplyDelete
  3. One comment on Brian's first comment. The UK launch of Hill's was 1998, so George has only been involved in "absinth"/absinthe for 13 years, not the "20 years or so" that was stated.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The original content of the blind tasting results and why you gave La Fee an award (label design) was reduced to one small paragraph with some glaring edits to the ones that followed. All of it buried under a talking point for George. Mostly about things you didn't even bring up in the first posting so those aren't clarifications, they are his additions.

    If you have to talk to make your product seem better then you're doing it wrong. Let the product speak for itself in reviews, forums, blind tastings, and honest blogs. No need for secrecy, just be honest. Definitely no need to have independent articles rewritten as shady promotional pieces.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Actually, all the tasting notes and opinions about the products themselves in this version are exactly the same as the original. The only thing that has changed in this respect is that previously I pointed out that La Fée were claiming on their website to have received a silver medal, without mentioning that it was for packaging, not for taste. They say this was a genuine mistake and have corrected it on their website. But I still emphasise, as I did before, that La Fée Parisienne scored the lowest marks in the blind tasting of all the absinthes submitted.

    The main difference between this version and the original is that the previous paragraphs speculating about how the product was made have been replaced with replaced with the company's own description of how it is made. If someone tells me their product is fully distilled then I can hardly call them a liar with no evidence to the contrary. Though I still find it interesting that there are so many rumours out there that it is really an oil mix, a point I make in the piece.

    The other difference is my attempt to present a balanced picture of the stormy world of the absinthe blogosphere—something I was not even aware of until I posted the original article. It is not for me to comment on who is right or wrong, simply to report that there are some very strong feelings and very harsh words being aired. The truth is that some forum posters do regard George as a "whore" and a "traitor". Meanwhile George does strike me as someone remarkably burdened by paranoia and resentment.

    If you think that allowing a producer to have his say about his own product makes it a "shady promotional piece" (especially when there is no actual evidence that any of it is untrue) then there is not much I can do there. But personally I feel that some of the things I've quoted George on reveal rather more than perhaps he realises.

    ReplyDelete
  6. What makes it shady is the he had you take down the article and re-write it. An interview with George could very well have been a separate article that linked back to the original one here. Instead he was given a podium and your original article was shoved underneath it. Also an interview with others in the absinthe community about any of George's points is not present which makes it seem as though you are pandering to George at the exclusion of others. Hardly comes across as independent blogging at this point. Indeed the online world of absinthe is stormy, but just google terms associated with absinthe and you will see why, there's a lot of misconception and myth that's just poured out from producers of faux-sinthes. Saying you make authentic stuff then putting out a bohemian and NV only occludes things further for newcomers.

    You do reveal more from him here, especially with the target audience of NV (wow). And I can only hope people read your footnotes.

    George's paranoia comes from getting blasted whenever he tries to make it seem like he is king of absinthe or something ridiculous like that. He did some work yes, but I don't think he realizes how he has also damaged the reputation of absinthe as well. Not everything he did or continues to do is golden. Plus his main line keeps getting slammed in blind tastings and user reviews. That would make anyone paranoid especially while trying to pretend that they are delivering authentic offerings in any way.

    As far as people calling him names I find that to be really beside the point. Some people get heated and start flinging mud and that is their burden to bear when their reputations are on the line (not excluding myself). But as I've said elsewhere George's actions are what truly determine his reputation. If he dislikes his reputation then he should think about his actions.

    If George took issue with your original article he should've posted a comment and offered an interview. Instead he had you take down the article only to repost it with his interview on top. What kind of action is that?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Isn't it rather misleading to describe it as La Fée Parisienne now that it is no longer produced there? You can't call a wine "Bordeaux" if it is made in the Rhone region. So the absinthe should now be called La Fée Lyonnaise.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I quite like absinthe cocktails, although I have never tried and expensive stuff. I have made this absinthe cocktail up though.

    http://roughdiamonddrinks.blogspot.com/2011/06/flaming-galliano.html

    ReplyDelete