‘Absinthe makes you go mad.’ In the late 19th and early 20th century, France’s temperance advocates hammered this message home so zealously that it led to a ban in 1915. It wasn’t until the 1990s that absinthe, in its authentic form, reappeared.
Drinks importer George Rowley moved heaven and earth to bring ‘The Green Fairy’ – its nickname – back to life. Since then, he’s sold more than a million bottles of La Fée, an absinthe supérieure made in France using a pre-ban recipe with all-natural ingredients.
It was widely propagated that absinthe’s principal ingredient, wormwood, had hallucinogenic properties, which made you do irrational, impulsive things. Nonsense, of course, but that disparaging one-liner remains in hearts and minds, even today. In reality, absinthe was merely a contributor to the alcoholism that pervaded Europe at the time.
By the time the ban took effect, absinthe had already acquired mythical status through the painters, poets and bon viveurs of the belle époque who venerated it in their art. Its theatrical service gilded things, too: the ornate water fountain, that special spoon with its sugar cube, the louching effect of the liquid (turning opaque with the addition of water) and the unmistakable receptacle that held it.
Today, the Green Fairy’s enduring allure is imbued in La Fée’s branding and the novel serves it has created to bring absinthe to a wider audience. Rowley’s first-ever customer – a certain Johnny Depp – has no doubt helped to shift a few cases, too.
But it was the serendipitous cocktail revival of the early Noughties that secured its position in the booze pantheon. Look in Difford’s Guide and you’ll find more than 200 cocktails that call on a dash of La Fée’s herbal complexity for complement.
The origins of La Fée
Already busy importing Czech beer, Rowley wanted to do the same with a drink he came across in Prague called Hill’s Absinth (notice the missing ‘e’). While speaking to the producers he learned they’d been privately supplying musician John Moore – of The Jesus and Mary Chain fame – who had similar designs on the UK market.
They teamed up: Moore on the PR and Rowley, among other things, on the creation of a template to legalise the drink in the EU (the Czech Republic was not yet a member). ‘I went to three labs in the UK and not one of them could do the proper chemical compound analysis – crazy!’ says Rowley. But with the help of Prague University, the analysis tools were created to do a proper commercial test.
The subsequent EU directive set a precedent by which Rowley could later go on to test his own La Fée. The next issue was that no one had made proper absinthe for 80 years – ‘there was no blueprint for the recipe,’ says Rowley. The neon-blue Czech stuff, which doesn’t louche, was inauthentic.
Enter Marie-Claude Delahaye, the creator of the Musée de l’Absinthe in Paris. Rowley went to visit her to enquire about recipes. ‘The first meeting didn’t go very well. She thought we were spying,’ says Rowley. ‘We sort of were!’, he adds.
Rowley left disappointed, but continued to petition Delahaye, asking whether she’d work with him to create the real stuff – in a French distillery (the ban prevented consumption not manufacture). She agreed and, with the consent of the French tax office, they got to work.
‘La Fée’s recipe is very close to that of the past, but there’s less wormwood in it now,’ says Delahaye. ‘To ensure it complies with EU regulations there can only be 35mg of thujone [wormwood’s vilified active ingredient] per litre. In the past, there was 10 times this amount,’ she adds.
What goes into making Parisienne Absinthe Supérieure
There are eight natural ingredients in La Fée absinthe: three types of wormwood (grand, petit and genepi), two types of anise (star and green), fennel, coriander and hyssop. ‘We kept the use of genepi, or “mountain wormwood”, a secret for years – it’s definitely something that sets us apart,’ says Rowley.
La Fée is made by Cherry Rocher, a 300-year-old distillery based in the Rhône Alpes region. They use a base of sugar-beet neutral spirit for two reasons. ‘It has the “cleanest” template, adding less flavour than the obvious alternatives, allowing the distillates to shine,’ says Rowley. The other reason is because Napoleon invented it – French credentials par excellence.
The respective ingredients are always distilled separately. ‘This ensures consistency, as the potency of the herbs can vary according to when they’re picked in the year,’ says Rowley. A flavourless maceration of other plants is introduced to the blend to give the drink its trademark hue. Finally, demineralised water is added to bring the liquid down to 68% ABV, absinthe’s traditional strength.
Every time a batch is distilled, a sample goes to Delahaye at her Musée and to George in England to check the flavour, aromas and louching effect. Interestingly, Delahaye is otherwise teetotal. ‘If I did drink, I might have consumed all the contents of my museum,’ she says.
How did the design come about?
Each bottle of La Fée Parisienne Absinthe Supérieure is coated in a UV inhibitor, which protects its delicate natural ingredients from light damage. The tall, thin shape of the bottle matches those most commonly found at Delahaye’s museum – a further effort to honour the drink’s heritage.
Perhaps most noticeable, though, is that each bottle comes with its own branded absinthe spoon, made from Sheffield stainless steel. This elegant accoutrement (and marketing tool) is designed to work with the other absinthiana to produce the classic serve. The fountain’s water droplets melt the sugar cube held by the perforated spoon, which sits on top of a glass of absinthe.
What’s next for La Fée?
‘It’s great, but what do I do with it?’ says Rowley, impersonating his customers. He says the biggest issue with the drink is educating people on how to drink the stuff. As such, he spent a year during lockdown thinking it through – and found his answer in the pharmaceutical industry.
A company producing medical literature helped him to create a label that doubled up as a 12-page booklet. It’s been applied to a new smaller 20cl bottle, reminiscent of cocktail bitters such as Angostura. The booklet provides the reader with a variety of recipes, including Rowley’s own French mojito, while addressing the history of the drink and La Fée’s brand story.
Open the pocket-sized bottle’s lid and up pops an auto pourer, giving you the right amount for a whole measure or a dash for, say, a Sazerac. Rowley’s hope is that creating a more keenly priced (compared to the 70cl bottle) and easy-to-use product will make The Green Fairy more accessible.