Venue Insight gets to talk to the genius that is George Rowley.

Moving from insurance to alcoholic beverages was a bold move – What was the inspiration for the career change?...

I left London for Prague in 1993 looking for change and adventure; having worked as a Lloyd’s Broker for ten years on International Non-Marine claims and placing. It was exciting times being just 4 years after the Velvet Revolution in which Russia withdrew from Czechoslovakia creating the Czech and Slovak Republic. I worked for Minet a.s. - the leading broker at this time across both countries as an expat liaising with London, involved in a wide mix of activities with industry clients from steel mills, petroleum plants, Tesco take-over of K-Mart, to world bank mini-mill construction loans secured on client insured assets. Also involved with the Czech state system into partnership with private insurance with Brokers and treaty re-insurance out of London and the USA. Prague social life naturally exposed me to lots of amazing Czech beer including Staropramen and the local spirit Becherovka.

After three years in 1996 I wanted a new challenge, so I set-up my own company Bohemia Beer House Ltd. tasked to import ‘real’ Czech Beer into the EU for the UK, having signed up three Breweries Klášter Brewery (founded in 1570 in a former Cistercian monastery) Rebel and Lobkowicz brewery and later the Czech National spirit Becherovka and Slivovitz (Plum Brandy). Fortunately no one back then asked about my infrastructure in place to do all this, as there was none, just me and a part time Czech student - it’s amazing what you could do back then in a smart suit and passion. I’d learnt how to legalise the import for UK (by default into the EU) working with Hertfordshire Trading Standards in St Albans, shipped the goods over to Bayford Hall, in Hertfordshire, storing the goods in

the family cellar (at first having to open each case and add new UK compliant back labels by hand to each bottle). I then would drive mainly around London selling my independent beer and spirits out the back of my old Triumph Herald convertible to independent clubs and Bars and smart pubs. The key was that I only instructed the beers to be radiated (flash heat) to enable a 6 month shelf life (as sold in the Czech Republic locally) - maintaining full body and flavour by not sterilising to 12 months like most other exports at the time. Pricing was almost double main brands, only we were different and a premium from the mainstream.

It took two years graft to get going from scratch and just as it was about to get interesting with a good independent client base, I had a contractual issue with my best selling beer following a Czech take-over, involving the type of people you either say yes to or walk away ~ I walked. Taught me a key lesson, you need to own the Brands and their Trade Marks for clear use in key markets, ensuring you control the Brand and its value.

Around this time in early 1998 I came across Hill’s Absinth in Prague, following enquiries and some historical research, this started to look interesting. First inspection showed Absinthe was banned across the EU and other countries including the USA and would likely be an impossible task to bring back legally.

What support did you have or not have in the revival of Absinthe?...

Help? – None, apart from the support by my mum and dad who let me set-up an office in their attic and use the cellar for storage, (technically making the sleepy village of Bayford the epicentre for Absinthe crafted revival). Otherwise, it was just intuition and dogmatic resilience to find a legal solution.

I applied the same EU directives on my other imported spirits to Absinth (Czech don’t use the ‘e’ in Absinthe, that’s French or Swiss).

Leveraging my relationship with Trading Standards, I visited their office and explained I wanted to throw the technical book at Absinthe. In May that year I got the rules clarified and signed off, including conducting the first commercial tests on Thujone for absinthe enabling its legal return, all Absinthe follow the same protocols today. To do this I had to import rare elements from the USA (for baseline control) which I gifted to the University of Prague and in exchange for upgrading their ability to test additional rare elements, they carried out my certification for the EU (fortunately being a recognised and certified lab). To this day I don’t understand why the other EU lab’s I approached could not test for Thujone as limited under EU directive, their response was no one has asked until now! First test failed EU regulations – not for Thujone (although that hardly registered and as we then proved by traditional distilling, is negligible in Absinthe) but for high levels of aldehyde. We upped the quality of alcohol, fixing this problem and launched Absinth in the EU in November 1998 at the Groucho Club Soho London, which in turn started the Absinthe revival.

What was your earliest memory of tasting Absinthe and how would you say it has transformed since it’s revival?...

In mid 1998, John Moore (former drummer and guitarist of the Jesus & Mary Chain) and I had just spent the afternoon signing the exclusive contract for Hill’s Absinth. Once back in Prague, we went to celebrate at Café FX in ‘Prague 2’. This burning drink went across the room, it turned out to be Absinth - it looked amazing, so I said to John that’s how we will launch ours with the sugar and burn, (much frowned upon by ‘aficionados’, but without it, it’s unlikely we would have made the media and public stir we did - Jeremy Paxman covered it enthusiastically on News Night). The problem was, this was not ‘real absinthe’, (after all it should be French or Swiss) the colour was wrong and it was missing key ingredients. Later products started to appear also wrong

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