Absinthe Butterfly : Interview with Brian Fernald
Following the release of the Butterfly Absinthe, an exclusive interview with the man who brought back the vintage brand to life, Brian Fernald.
Alan Moss : What was it that got you interested in absinthe, and when was that? Can you tell us about your other absinthe business?
Brian Fernald : I first crossed paths with absinthe back in the mid 1990’s when I was in college. I remember picking up a copy of Seconds Magazine from the now defunct Tower Records in Boston. They had done a few articles on absinthe. From there, my interest was piqued.
I own a barware business located in a suburb of Boston. One of our lines is absinthe accessories ( http://www.absinthedevil.com/ ) and it’s clearly my favorite.
What was the first absinthe you ever bought? Any comments about it?
I remember buying a few bottles of oil mixed absinthe in Germany back in 2000. Once the real absinthe was readily available I bought anything I could get my hands on. I can’t recall which bottle I would have opened first.
I do remember my first taste of La Clandestine. This experience was nothing short of life changing.
Why did you decide to bring back Butterfly Absinthe?
On a whim, I ran a trademark search and was surprised as hell to find it available. This brand deserved to be brought back to life so I set about doing just that.
Can you tell us about your research in Boston? I understand your researchers unearthed a lot of materials which you are adding to your website. Can you give us an idea of what materials you will be showing on the site over the next few months?
The research was split between two historians. One researched the business and the other the Dempsey family. The results included everything from how many taxes P. Dempsey & Co paid each year to how many times old man Dempsey fell off his horse. The trick will be deciding what is of interest to fans of Butterfly and posting it on the website.
I spent a fair share of my free time researching pre-ban American absinthe. Before I started the research, I was expecting to find out that oil mixed absinthe ruled the day. Surprisingly, I found little evidence to back up this notion. From what I can tell, if you wanted absinthe back then you could go the bar, liquor store or even the pharmacy. Based on accounts I read, absinthe produced by liquor companies was clearly different from what was produced by pharmacists. I have accounts detailing absinthe being made correctly by American liquor companies. The oil mix claims are mostly likely based on what the local pharmacists were selling considering that pharmacist trade journals had plenty of oil mix absinthe recipes.
How did you decide to work with Claude-Alain Bugnon ? What was the process of selecting him, and then of getting the first production made?
Selecting him? I consider myself lucky that he agreed to work with me! Simply being in the barware business doesn’t pre-qualify you for making a good absinthe. I asked. He said yes. I would say the decision was Artemisia’s.
Getting a chance to spend time with Claude-Alain in his distillery was a dream come true. You must understand that his absinthe is largely responsible for my interest in the drink. I got to spend a week with him making the first batch and lending a hand in the distillery. I won’t soon forget the warmth and hospitality that Claude-Alain and his family showed to this American with a rather limited grasp of French! The whole experience was incredible.
Some people have commented that it’s a little strange to be making an American-style Absinthe with Boston on the label in Switzerland. In fact it’s probably easier for Europeans to buy it than for Americans to buy it. How do you answer that?
I don’t find it any stranger than making a French-style absinthe outside of France with a label blanketed in French words.
Maybe in an ideal world, Boston would have an absinthe distiller as qualified as Claude- Alain and I could have made it in Boston. This just isn’t the case. Boston’s distilling industry never bounced back from prohibition. The city was once one of the major distilling hubs of the world but now boasts not a single craft distiller.
I think Butterfly is in very capable hands in Couvet. My focus from day one has been quality and consistency. Where the product is made is inconsequential if the product isn’t any good. I suppose it’s preferable to have the critics disapprove of where the product is made but enjoy the contents of the bottle than vice-versa.
Boston on the label refers back to where the recipe emanated along with the year when it was originally produced.
As for availability, where an absinthe is made doesn’t translate to wide scale national availability. Last I checked there are two absinthe brands readily available in Boston, Pernod and Kubler. Both are imports. Great absinthe is made in New York – a neighbouring state, mind you – but you can’t buy it in Massachusetts either in a store or online. Getting a small batch absinthe distributed throughout the USA is very long road to hoe. When you look at the facts making Butterfly in Switzerland doesn’t limit its reach, it extends it.
I assume you’re pleased with the feedback you’ve got from the first people who have tried the new Butterfly. Is there anything you’ve learned so far that you’d like to change?
I’ve been very happy with the early feedback, for sure. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
What plans do you have for extending availability of Butterfly? To France? To the rest of the world? What can you tell us on timescales?
Butterfly is very much a hand-crafted absinthe that will only be made available in small quantities. However we recognize that absinthe lovers in many countries want to try it and our online stores can ship to most places. Butterfly will be in stores in Prague and in Paris in the next week or two, and in a few more cities over the next couple of months. Of course the US and Canada are somewhat more complicated and will take longer.
You were in Switzerland at the time when the IGP issue had become a hot topic, especially for American consumers. How do you see the issue?
I’m not an attorney or an expert in international trade agreements and could only make unqualified speculation on the outcome of the IGP application. I think I’ll await the outcome and judge the IGP based on the results.
Apart from Butterfly, what are your 3 favorite absinthes, either historic or currently available?
One of my favourite things about absinthe is its diversity so it would be rather hard to limit to just three favorites. My three favourite styles are Suisse la bleue, Pontarlier verte, Suisse verte. As for specific absinthes, lately I’ve been enjoying the La Clandestine, a few of the Jade absinthes, Eichelberger, Montmartre, Opaline, Roquette and Walton Waters.
Finally how do you see the absinthe category developing, both in the US and worldwide?
I think the current increased interest in classic cocktails will be a strong wind in the sails for the absinthe market.
The fact that there are now so many real absinthes must lead to them taking share from the fake absinthes around the world. Especially if they can be better distributed, promoted and sampled.