La Fée verte (The green fairy) made in Switzerland to conquer the United States
Authorized by the Federal government, it will still have to satisfy the authorities of the 50 States of the Union in order to be available everywhere. Produced by Kübler in Môtiers in the Canton of Neuchâtel, absinthe was launched in October in New York, Boston and Las Vegas. In January, it will be in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. And then Chicago and Miami in February.The importer Altamar states that Kübler is “the leading authentic Swiss absinthe to hit the American market in close to a century”, and is highly confident about its success.
“We have been pleasantly surprised by the reactions of retailers, and we may be able to accelerate our marketing schedule”, Lyons Brown, the owner of Altamar, told Swissinfo.
Baudelaire, Marilyn Manson, Hemingway
The arrival of Kübler on the American market has nonetheless not been easy, because absinthe is preceded by a sulfurous reputation. A plant-based strongly alcoholic drink which may have hallucinogenic effects, it has been appreciated by certain artists since the 19th century. From Baudelaire to the rock start Marilyn Manson, not to overlook Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh or Hemingway.
Following the lead of Switzerland and other European countries, the United States banned absinthe in 1912. Sixty years later, it was again licensed, according to the Wormwood Society, an organization promoting the cause of absinthe. But Federal authorities charged with regulating alcoholic beverages didn’t know it or didn’t want to know it.
“The people of the Department of Commerce and Taxes told us that absinthe is illegal, but could not cite any supporting legal texts”, attorney Robert Lehrman, who represents Kübler in Washington, told Swissinfo.
Thujone, a source of concern.
Robert Lehrman states that American officials were “concerned” because Kübler contains thujone, the ingredient that is claimed to be hallucinogenic. He argues that “Kübler remains within the limits set by Federal authorities for thujone”. The Kübler formula was then approved in 2004, but with the condition that the word “absinthe” not appear on the label.
Faced with this obstacle, the attorney advised Kübler to remove the thujone. “But Kübler responded to me by telling me that it would not toy with the integrity of the product”, Mr. Lehrman recalled before adding that “absinthe without thujone is like Playboy without the photos”.
A Pirated Bottle
The decisive meeting with American officials took place on the 27th of February last. Flanked this time by the Commercial Attaché of the Swiss Embassy, Kübler’s attorney advanced a strong argument: a pirated bottle.
“I have brought a bottle purchased over the Internet which is absent an official label, and does not have the address of either the producer or importer, and like it or not, certain parties are selling absinthe without paying taxes, and I assert that it is better to license producers like Kübler, who will respect the rules of the game”, explained Mr. Lehrman.
On his part, Urs Broennimann, the Commercial Attaché, underscored that his role at the meeting “was to explain that in Switzerland, absinthe has become legal again and this has found a great deal of interest by our American counterparts, because there has been the impression that they misjudged their decision not to authorize the Kübler label”.
Green Light, But …
The label was approved in May and Kübler was thus sold in the United States under the name absinthe.
The difficulty with absinthe is its aura. However, the Department of Commerce and Taxes has recognized that on the basis of a scientific analysis, absinthe does not pose any problem, Robert Lehrman stated.
The battle thus won, but there will be others in the future. In fact, if Kübler is licensed by the Federal government and certain cities, it will have to satisfy the authorities of the 50 States of the Union in order to be available everywhere. “The laws governing the sale of alcohol vary a great deal from one state to another, and therefore it is necessary to undertake procedures in each state”, said Urs Broennimann. It is also essential to take into account the conservatism of certain states, even if that means accommodating a type of hypocrisy.
A Natural Beverage, Indeed an Herb Tea
“Alcohol is a taboo subject in the United States, but it is also a marvelous source of revenue for the states that tax it, and which, like Virginia for example, sell it themselves”, said Mr. Lehrman.
Altamar is presenting Kübler on the American market almost as a natural beverage, indeed an herb tea.
Its press release, prepared together with the Embassy’s Commercial Section, underscores that if absinthe contains 53% alcohol, “its principal ingredient is the Artemisia absinthium plant in a formula which notably also includes coriander, mint, anise and fennel.
However, the reputation of absinthe is that enjoyed also by Altamar and Kübler. The targeted consumers are thus “those less than 40 years old, with a carefree and Bohemian bent, a milieu which starts late in the evening”, according to Mr. Brown, the owner of Altamar.
Mr. Lehrman further emphasized that absinthe remains “more exciting than most of the other products” and that young people “have a fascination with absinthe”. He concluded by stating that the producers are “enormously interested” in the American market, because “this market is immense, and at $50 a bottle, extremely profitable.
swissinfo, Marie-Christine Bonzom, Washington