Interview with Sven Olsen, one of the fathers of la Maison Fontaine
MV: So tonight I’m meeting with Sven Olsen, one of the creators of the Maison Fontaine. Good evening, Sven. First of all I’d like to know a bit more about you and your partner, Mark Stringer. So can you talk a bit about you, about your background and so on, where you come from and how you come to absinthe?
SO: Sure. It all started out a couple years back when one of my friends ended up going to a festival in Europe, actually the one in the Val de Travers… came back and told me about that there was this group of… I don’t think he said fanatics, but people who were very passionate about a drink that was called absinthe. And we had been talking earlier about making a beverage product together and he said “This is something that you should look into”, which I started doing and investigating and decided this is definitely something worth my time. But I also realized I needed somebody to work with with some branding experience because doing a good product is not going to do it in today’s world, you need to have it branded in a proper manner, marketed (marked? marqued?) in a proper manner, so I called up a friend of mine, Mark Stringer, whom I met the year before at the London business school and I called him up and asked him if he knew somebody in the creative industry in London who could help out a start-up company, meaning that we don’t have to pay too much money upfront and our pockets were not that deep. And his first comment was, “This is bizarre”. I was thinking, OK, that doesn’t sound so good. What does he mean by that? And then it turned out that 3 months earlier he had started his own company which was a communications agency that partly was doing regular communication jobs for multinationals including Red Bull and Cadbury and so on and the other part of the business was like an incubator, working with start-up companies, exactly for projects like this. So we ended up teaming up and said “let’s go and do an absinthe”. And then of course the first issue was we needed to find somebody who really knew something about absinthe, because we only knew what we had read and it didn’t take us long to hook up with David Nathan-Maister from Oxygenée and we had some very detailed discussions with him on what we wanted and how it should be . Bascially we gave him what you could call the impossible brief. Because we told him that we would like to have an absinthe which was historic and traditional , correctly made, according to, maybe not historic recipes but at least historic processes and so, but we wanted a modern twist. And then we would like to have something that would really be an acceptable taste to absintheurs, to experts in the industry, and also interesting for young people to try out in a kind of more modern, a bit more modern and fashionable.
MV: Adapted to mixology?
SO: And then we told him we would also like to have something that would work in cocktails. And we would also like to have something that you could actually sip neat. And David looked at us and said, OK, guys, now you have to make up your minds, “What do you want?”. And we said, “well we want it all”. You could have expected him to walk away at the time but he didn’t. He stayed put and came up with, after several tries I must say, he came up with La Maison Fontaine.
MV: So it was actually a work back and forth between David and Dominique? (nota : Dominique Rousselet, master distiller at Les Fils d’Emile Pernot)
SO: Absolutely. In the beginning it was mostly with David, then when we were getting to making it work in production environment, Dominique played a very important role in getting it right. Yes, absolutely.
MV: So the choice of a blanche absinthe, was it yours, was it Dominique, was it based on advice?
SO: That came very much from our side, I must say at the time and the reason was we wanted to make it contemporary, a bit fashionable, and we didn’t want people to be afraid of it because today many people hear the word absinthe – oof, they get a bit scared. And we felt that maybe to start out with a blanche, it was a bit less intimidating in a way, it’s easier for people to accept. People are used to vodka, they are used to gin and so on. So we felt it would be easier for people to access the absinthe category with a blanche.
MV: And when you tasted the final version of La Maison Fontaine for the first time, was it like an epiphany, was it like, that’s what we wanted to do?
SO: When we tasted the final version there was absolutely no doubt that that was what we had asked for. We had to kiss a few frogs before we got the result, but there was absolutely no doubt.
MV: All right. So let’s talk now about your target demographic. I’ve read that you are currently aiming for top-end bars in London and Copenhagen. Why such a demographic?
SO: It’s not only London and Copenhagen, we’re now in Paris. We’ve just been here. I’ve just been to the Packard Hotel this afternoon; we’ve been talking with the bartenders there. I think London has been a bit of a sender (?) for us because Mark Stringer is based there. Our mixologistist Alan Gage is based in London, and the London bar scene is very much a reference market for the rest of the world, so that has been a natural place. Copenhagen, I’m originally from Denmark, so it was kind of a natural place to make sure that we would get it in. We have a kind of selective distribution here in France and we’re trying to do a few things to make it more interesting for the French bar scene, making efforts to get in here.
MV: So why top-end for an absinthe? Why not try to make trailblazing one or something like that?
SO: Good question. I think, when we saw the people involved in this business, people with the handcraft things, they have the passion. It’s a bit difficult to think industrial and go mass market so we thought definitely it needs to be top-end and also in that way we put us as far away as possible from the more questionable absinthes that we all know are in the market.
MV: All right thank you. So when for the first time you got an award, then you got an award in Pontarlier at the Absinthiades. How did you feel, did you feel originally that you had an award-winning product?
SO: I mean you always hope that you have, but we entered these competitions with no great expectations I must say. I mean you still hope when you put it in. I think the International Wine and Spirits Competition best in class and gold award was very nice from a spirits industry perspective but I must say that the golden spoon from Pontarlier was at least as important if not more because from there you have more of the absintheurs and the people who have been involved in the industry for a long time, so that means a lot to us.
MV: Can you talk about the lessons you have learned so far in this industry or in the London market and so on.
SO: OK, I think specifically for the London market but I think it’s probably true for other markets in Europe, is that when you walk into a bar, everyone knows absinthe, at least they think they do. And what they know about absinthe is not always very positive and especially in the UK there have been in the ‘90’s some big problems with products that cater to young people, were being drunk as shots, set on fire, or whatever else you could do to it. So quite often when we walk into bars now people are a bit hesitant until we explain our approach and until we let them try the products. One of the things that we feel has been very important for our product is to make it versatile, that you can drink it traditionally with ice water, you can drink it in cocktails, you can even drink it on the rocks, or we actually also encourage people to try it neat after a meal, sip it like you would do with a grappa, as a digestive. When you explain those things to the people in the trade and let them try it, I think they change their perception of absinthe. But it’s a lot of work, it’s restaurant by restaurant, bar by bar. So hopefully someone else will join and help us out a bit on the one.
MV: All right. We’ve heard a tentative plan to go to an Asian market for La Maison Fontaine. Is it still a target market for you, and if you tried to go there how is this market that we don’t know?
SO: In the Asian market, there is a knowledge of absinthe among the trade, not so much among the consumers, and we are going in. We are launching. Our first place will be in Tapai, Taiwan, early December. And we are in talks with distributors in 6 or 7 other countries, in Asia Pacific on bringing the product in, and the tastings that we have done in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia and so on, the feedback has been very positive. Actually surprisingly positive because anise flavored drinks have traditionally not been a big thing, so we definitely knew that we were going in aiming at a minority of the market. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from the people who have tried our absinthe.
MV: All right. Last question, now that you have performed quite well with the blanche, with the first absinthe, do you feel like trying another one, for example a verte or a little sister for La Maison Fontaine?
SO: There will definitely be something else coming out, hopefully next year. And as you probably have guessed, I cannot tell you what it is.
MV: Thank you very much anyway.
SO: You’re very welcome.
Transcribed by Steve Williams November 28, 2010