We recently had a chance to conduct an email interview with Gwydion Stone, founder of The Wormwood Society, a leading proponent of accurate absinthe information, and administrator (as 'Hiram') of its lively and informative forums. Named one of Imbibe magazine's 15 innovators of the cocktail world in 2007, he recently became involved in his own brand of absinthe, Marteau (look for a review here soon).
InAbsinthia: When did you begin the Wormwood Society?
GS: Our first gathering was four years ago on February 20th, 2004. About a dozen locals got together at the Capitol Club in Seattle to discuss the possibilities for an absinthe special interest group, just to host parties. We had our first Green Hour several weeks later and I went from having tasted two absinthes to seventeen.
InAbsinthia: How many estimated 'active' members of the forums would you say there were?
GS: It's difficult to say because people come and go of course, but we generally have around a hundred fairly active contributors, maybe fifty more who stop in regularly but less often, and a good solid core group of about thirty.
InAbsinthia: What do you see as the future of the Wormwood Society and its web site?
GS: The Wormwood Society is, and I believe always will be, the primary and most user-friendly source of absinthe education in America; and it's the only organization specifically dedicated to that goal. With the current changes in the US, we have a lot to keep up with, and the information is often challenging to get at, but I think the general public needs to be informed about the facts.
The Wormwood Society is more than a passive web site and a discussion forum for enthusiasts; it's a pro-active educational effort. The support team members and myself often go out to other forums and blogs and attempt to clarify the facts, with varying degrees of gratitude and acceptance. I regularly write to journalists and editors and give them facts and copies of recent science papers.
For the future, there are plans in the works for literature to be distributed to industry members—restaurant and bar owners, bar staff, event coordinators and state liquor control boards, as well as distillers and distributors. I'd also like to do live seminars on absinthe service for industry members.
This year we'll host our first annual event, the Grande Soirée d'Absinthe, in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail, which is one of the largest and most well respected cocktail events in the country. The Soirée is being co-produced by the Wormwood Society and the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society. Absinthe and New Orleans—it's a no-brainer. I expect this to become our flagship event.
There's also a much-delayed podcast in the works. When I announced last summer that I was producing Marteau in Switzerland and hoped to bring it into the US this year, I didn't realize that I would have an opportunity to actually produce it here. Getting that moving takes up most of my time these days.
Read more beneath the fold...
InAbsinthia: When did you become involved with the Marteau absinthe? What were your goals for it? And where do you see it going next?
GS: What later turned into Marteau began as part of my own absinthe self-education. There's only so much you can learn about absinthe from reading and drinking—as much fun as they both may be.
So early in 2005 I set out to learn how to make it. I studied the 18th and 19th century distiller's manuals and read up on the botany and agriculture, then set up a tiny laboratory to begin making it in tiny amounts, a half-liter or liter at a time. I can't over-emphasize how much greater understanding one has of absinthe production—or any practice really—after one gets up out of the armchair and actually does it.
Absinthe making is not rocket science. An understanding of the basic principles of distilling is necessary, but my approach to absinthe was as a consumer. For me it has always been a culinary endeavor. I've cooked in a number of (small and not-too-sexy) restaurants and I enjoy it immensely, but I rather prefer doing it at home. Cooking is a passion, and for me absinthe making turned out to be an extension of it.
I had to try to understand the elusive flavors I found in the pre-ban absinthes. I learned that some of the botanicals used in the old days were grown and harvested differently than they are today, and several were of different varieties, giving them a whole different flavor profile. Of course this led to a quest to make an absinthe which suited my personal taste, but was based soundly on historical precedent. I really like the anise and wormwood, but many of the commercial offerings were weak on wormwood, were far too candy-like, and I really enjoyed a more savory, serious type of drink. This isn't to say I reduced the anise and fennel amounts, but rather brought several other herbs forward to compliment them.
A year and a half later I had been introduced by Robert "DrinkBoy" Hess to the classic cocktail renaissance already in progress, and I had occasion to use some of the absinthe samples in cocktails. The first was an Obituary Cocktail and I was struck by how well the other herbs complimented the gin and dry vermouth so much better than a simple, sweet, licorice-flavored substitute. The same with a Sazerac, which tends to be sweet anyway. A few dashes of a less sweet absinthe turned it back into a grownup's drink.
I realized that:
- there was a serious need to bridge the gap between the absinthe community and the cocktail community and I was in a unique position to do it, and
- there was a serious need for an absinthe which performed well in a cocktail as well as on its own with just water. That was the beginning of Marteau Verte Classique.
Right now I'm working with a distillery where I'm actually able to do the work myself. The product I'm working on at the moment is a much more traditional recipe, like a Berger or Pernod. Domestically distilled Marteau will be on the shelves and in bars this year sometime. How soon is really up to the TTB at this point.
InAbsinthia: What are your thoughts on the opening up of the US market? What do you see as the future of absinthe here?
GS: Sometimes I have bad dreams about it. Not really. But things could go horribly wrong here if the TTB doesn't get off its butt and establish a standard of identity for absinthe. They apparently feel that their current standards adequately inform the consumer, but they don't. The consumer has no way of knowing that what's in the bottle is what they really want—authentic absinthe—unless the TTB takes steps to ensure that. At this point, you're taking the producer's word for it.
What this means is that in spite of the fact that we're starting out fresh here, and with a decade of experience to draw on from watching other markets, instead of doing it right the US could end up with wacky, off-the-wall products sold as absinthe just because we now know we can use absinthium in spirits.
In a nutshell, the irresponsible marketing that kick-started this renaissance has tainted the market and the public perception of absinthe for a decade, and now that's all anyone knows unless they do some dedicated searching.
The best I can do is to continue to spread the facts through the efforts of Wormwood Society, and set an example for other distillers by producing a top-quality, exemplary absinthe with dignified and non-sensational marketing. I'm pretty happy with that.
So thanks to Gwydion for a great interview and The Wormwood Society as an excellent resource. Keep up the good work!