We meet the duo behind London's first Absinthe distillery.
Despite the hundreds of Gin distilleries launching in the Uk, the countless new Whisky producers, the boom in British Rum, none of ventured into the world of Absinthe. Until now.
Allison Crawbuck (AC) and Rhys Everett (RE) founded Devil's Botany, London's first absinthe distillery and are on a mission to take the often forgotten about outsider back into the mainstream. Here's their story so far...
Devil’s Botany is just getting started but anything like that is years in the making. Let’s track back a little first - When did you develop a passion for Absinthe and what drew you to it?
(AC)- Our curiosity for absinthe was first piqued after opening our cocktail bar in 2016. We were intrigued by the mystery that surrounded absinthe and the fact that it remained so widely misunderstood. After travelling to the Jura Mountains and meeting the clandestine distillers of Absinthe's birthplace, we became hooked and have worked to share our passion for absinthe ever since.
You’ve been a driving force behind not just opening the Absinthe Parlour & Cocktail Bar at The Last Tuesday Society in 2016 but building its extensive list of Absinthe. What’s the most frequent preconception about Absinthe that you come across with guests?
(RE)- The most common preconceptions are that absinthe will make you hallucinate, that it's illegal and that it should be set on fire.
All of these are definitely not true, although there’s no denying its ability to spark a creative flame.
We also find that people are apprehensive about trying absinthe due to it’s high abv, but when diluted properly it can in-fact be no stronger than a good glass of wine.
When did the journey into making spirits begin for you?
(RE)- We started developing our recipe on a small 2.5L copper pot still in 2019 whilst studying for a distilling certification. After a year and a half of development, we took the leap of faith and upgraded to our 150L pot still in the midst of lockdown. That’s when the real journey began!
Is Devil’s Botany separate to The Last Tuesday Society bar and museum, is it all one group, or just close synergies based on a close working relationship?
(RE)- We started Devil’s Botany as a separate venture to our bar at The Last Tuesday Society, but the two will always work very closely together. They are both driven by our passion for absinthe, and the peculiar collection of the Viktor Wynd Museum will always be an inspiring setting for a tipple or two.
The distillery is located in Walthamstow, just a stone's throw away from our bar in Hackney.
What’s been the highlight of the journey so far?
(RE)- So far, the response from our customers has been beyond anything that we had expected! Knowing that we have been able to convert G&T slingers into a new generation of absinthe drinkers has been fantastic! Also, we could not be prouder to open London’s first absinthe distillery.
We’ve spotted a georgeous looking Muller still. Working with licensing, commissioning the stills, and all the paperwork can take a while to process – how have you found that challenge?
(RE)- Getting to commission our own still and working with Sebastian and his team at Muller, from the design right through to the delivery and installation was superb!
(AC)- Deciphering the ins and outs of licensing, however, was a huge learning curve. No matter how prepared you are, the process takes longer than expected and is an ongoing challenge to master, but it’s all worthwhile when there’s a glass of absinthe waiting at the end of day!
For sure. Absinthe is an unusual (and awesome) decision for the first flagship spirit to emerge from a new distillery. How are you finding the reaction and interest from other bars and from within the trade?
(AC)- The excitement from within the trade so far definitely gives us confidence that London is ready for an absinthe and encourages us to keep moving forward. Absinthe should be a part of every bar’s spirit list and now that London has its own to be proud of, we hope that it will finally have its long-overdue revival. It’s not just a spirit that enhances cocktails in dashes, but it can replace spirits such as gin as the main ingredient.
How have you gone about building your recipe? Are you basing it off something that excited (like an old recipe book / reference) then tweaked it, or is it from scratch?
(RE)- At its core, we wanted to create a recipe that honoured the original absinthes of the pre-ban era. From there, we scoured through old manuscripts of herbal elixirs from the 18th century for inspiration.
Our recipe highlights that absinthe’s flavour profile can be complex - not just a big hit of anise, but something that is bright and refreshing.
Our absinthe is floral and herbaceous with undertones of almond and mint-chocolate.
The spirit is noticeably colourless which you state is an ode to the traditional Swiss-styled “Bleue” absinthes. For those who don’t know what that style is and only really think of Absinthe as green, could you elaborate a little on how the two are different?
(AC)- Absinthe is a botanical spirit made in a similar fashion to gin. Botanicals are macerated and then distilled with a base spirit, with the resulting liquid being clear. To make a traditional “verte” absinthe, you then infuse this distilled spirit with a mix of other botanicals to naturally colour it.
Both the “verte” and “bleue” styles were made during Absinthe's hayday. In 18th century London, a clear distilled spirit of wormwood and anise was also recreationally enjoyed for its supposed medicinal properties and agreeable flavour.
There’s always a careful balancing act between respecting a category’s heritage and making your own mark on it and in this case – trying to create a new style of absinthe that is quintessentially British. How have you balanced the two?
(AC)- First and foremost, we were careful to respect the craftsmanship of historic absinthe distillers, spent half a decade researching the spirit’s history and drank a lot of absinthe —both modern and pre-ban.
From there we got to work experimenting with flavours that impart a British twist. Botanicals such as elderflower and meadowsweet, which grow locally to the distillery, add a unique flavour that we have not experienced in another absinthe.
People have an almost instinctual relationship with Gin and they know what to do with it, but get a little more nervous and unsure about Absinthe so last but not least - If you’ve got a bottle at home, what simple serve can you make that will bring it to life?
(RE)- The simplest serve is 1-part absinthe with 3-parts ice cold water, or 2-parts water when served over ice, with or without a sugar cube. You can also serve it as a refreshing Highball or a Spritz. Absinthe is a great flavour enhancer to most classic cocktails!
Experiment with different recipes, swapping the main ingredient for absinthe, and you’ll be surprised how versatile it can be.