The Hartford Courant ran a nice piece on our work with Absinthe Mata Hari
Avon-Based Company Helping To Distribute Absinthe, Once Banned In U.S.
By KENNETH J. ST. ONGE | Special to the Courant
November 13, 2008
Vincent van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso all drank absinthe, a supposedly hallucinogenic liquor popularized in Europe in the late 1800s. But until last year, absinthe had been banned for nearly a century in the United States.
Now, two former executives of Heublein Inc. — once headquartered in Hartford and now part of Diageo, the world’s largest liquor, beer and wine firm — are working with an Austrian-based beverage maker to help import and distribute a new domestic variety of the licorice-flavored, translucent green beverage in the hope that it will gain favor among American mixed-drink lovers.
To do so, Steven Raye and Jeff Grindrod, managing partners of Avon-based Brand Action Team, have tapped an informal network of several dozen former Heublein colleagues, all of whom have a different expertise and their own contacts in certain areas of the country.
So far, that recipe has been a major boost to Brand Action Team clients looking to sell their products through the often confusing, state-regulated distribution system.
“We’re a small company — there are basically four of us — but through this virtual network of former Heublein [colleagues] we’re a much bigger company, and we’re able to do the same things as the bigger guys,” Grindrod said.
Brand Action Team was born out of that attitude of collaboration. Grindrod and Raye left Heublein in the late ’90s and worked on various beverage-industry products until they teamed up formally in 2005 to do marketing and other services for overseas beverage companies looking to gain a foothold in the U.S.
Over the last few years, their clients have include Ukrainian vodka companies and importers of cachaça, a rum-like Brazilian liquor made from sugar cane, and pisco, a brandy-like Peruvian liquor made from grapes.
The absinthe Grindrod and Raye are working with is called Mata Hari, a bohemian style liquor that differs from the French-style absinthes that are the only others available domestically.
Absinthe is in its own category as a drink, the two said, having a special aura of mystery and infamy. Absinthe is distilled from the herb Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, that contains trace amounts of an oily compound called thujone, which is believed to possess mildly hallucinogenic qualities, although that has never been established. Regardless, absinthe enthusiasts claim that the drink induces “clarity,” and rumors about its mind-altering effects have enhanced its scandalous reputation.
One story holds that Van Gogh was imbibing absinthe when he lopped off part of his ear. That type of publicity is difficult to buy.
That might be one reason Brand Action Team was able to get Mata Hari to market in 32 states over a 60-day period. That’s unheard of, Raye said. Normally that would take 18 months or longer.
“It speaks to the demand for this drink,” Raye said.
Still, it will take more than a buzz factor to support the long-term sales of absinthe. To get it established, Grindrod and Raye say the drink must possess a quality all widely drunk American liquors share: mixability.
“We live in a cocktail culture, and Mata Hari is far more mixable that the French-style absinthes,” Grindrod said.
Part of the strategy is to develop new drink recipes that call for the $57-a-bottle Mata Hari, and Grindrod and Raye have been working with bartenders in Connecticut to come up with new ideas. They include the Hemingway (with champagne), the Bohemian Mojito (with equal parts absinthe and rum) and the Courtesan (a shot containing absinthe, whisky and lime juice).