Industry Insiders: Peter Schaf, Agent Absintheur

Described by cutting edge food writer Louisa Chu as “the epicenter of the global absinthe revival”, Peter Schaf is as far removed from an absinthe fueled maniac as one could expect. Discreet, self-effacing, and polite, Schaf is a major player in the absinthe renaissance. An obsessive collector, scholar, and consultant to some of the best absintheurs in the world, Schaf is the dark horse of an industry that is all too often characterized by false perceptions and charlatans looking to make money off of the misunderstood and legendary literary tipple.

Point of Origin: My brother came to my wedding in Marseille in 1999 and asked me to find some absinthe for him, as he had tasted some on a deep-sea fishing trip and found it interesting. I found a Spanish mail-order liquor supplier on the web and while surfing around, discovered the already growing, mostly American underground absinthe enthusiast community on a forum at feeverte.net. From there, I made virtual online acquaintances from around the world, several whom I would eventually meet in person, some becoming friends and a few, business partners. What attracts you to absinthe? The history and legends, the myriad of fascinating antique objects, the complex and varying tastes of a well-made absinthe. Absinthe appeals to my lifelong antique-collecting/treasure hunting inclinations along with my desire to taste and experience unusual foods and drinks. The public seems to have perceive a stigma when thinking of absinthe. What are your thoughts on this? Where do you think it comes from? Ask any French person about absinthe and virtually 100% of the time you will get one of two responses: “It’s illegal, yes?” and “Doesn’t that make you crazy?” It took 50 years to ban absinthe in France (1915) after the first anti-absinthe literature of the 19th century appeared. That battle produced a great deal of negative press which made it over to the USA, where absinthe was banned even before France (1912) as a “precaution” to protect Americans from the degradation of society that it had caused in France.

Years later (1988), absinthe was officially “defined” by decree in France as a protective measure; our research uncovered that this also effectively legalized real absinthe, but no one seemed to notice or care commercially until over 10 years later. The recent “re-legalization” of absinthe in the USA (2007) is due to a similar reason: It was banned without the American government providing any specific definition as to what ingredients made a liquor named absinthe actually become absinthe. Through legal pressure, the government was convinced to declare specifics, thus opening the door for modern absinthes in the USA. Unfortunately, modern profiteers, with no clear understanding about what true absinthe actually is, are selling poorly made substitutes, using the same false “hallucinogenic” myths that caused absinthe to be banned as a “drug” in the first place!

Side Hustle: I wander flea markets when I need to clear my head and feed my treasure-hunting tendencies, keeping an eye out for that rare antique absinthe spoon, glass, document, or what not. I was once an avid scuba diver in another life, and miss it. I am a self-professed “wine dick,” much to the distress of friends who might accidentally get themselves into a technical discussion while drinking wine with me. Favorite Hangs: Actually, I am always at work, and never at work. Isn’t that the definition of an ideal job? My idea of playing is always having a sample of absinthe or some odd liquor or wine for someone to try. I recently received a “key” for the secretive PDT in New York City. I prefer a calm setting to unwind — this is my idea of the ideal lounge, and Jim’s cocktails are simply perfect. Too bad it’s an ocean away. That said, I always bring absinthe drinkers to the unique Cantada II bar in Paris (even though I don’t exactly blend in with the crowd). Mickey’s choice of absinthe is the best in Paris outside of my apartment. Alfred Jarry and Rimbaud would have appreciated the décor and ambiance. Known Associates: Who have you collaborated with, etc. during the course of your powerful ascent to glory? Glory, power?! I’d just like to be there when it happens! I provided T.A. Breaux his commercial start by setting him up in 2003 to make the Jade absinthe line in a distillery in the Loire Valley; this would eventually lead to efforts that helped lift the ban in the USA. Absinthe historian and antique booze-hunter David Nathan-Maister and I have collaborated on the small-batch Roquette absinthes made at the Emile Pernot (with a “T”) distillery in Pontarlier, France. I have contributed much to his exceptional absinthe collection and research, including a groundbreaking lab study debunking drug-like claims given to historic absinthes. David, Ted, and I were featured in a 2006 New Yorker article by Jack Turner, which I feel was strongly instrumental in the renewed interest in absinthe in the USA.

I arranged much of the 2004 absinthe episode of Kevin Brauch’s Thirsty Traveler TV series and was featured on the 2005 pilot of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations series; he had his first taste of “vintage” absinthe from one of my antique bottles here in Paris. That would eventually lead to a 2007 episode for Gourmet Magazine’s “Diary of a Foodie,” where my Pontarlier absinthe projects were recorded by Louisa Chu, the charming chef-vagabond of Chicago. I recently had the pleasure of supplying absinthe to the talented Jim Meehan of PDT, the best mixologist I have had the privilege of imbibing with. However, most of my efforts and associations have remained low-key, and I’m not that comfortable with self-promotion. Projections: The potential for making a world-class absinthe in the USA is as high as making great wine, and I guess that has worked out pretty well. Distilling absinthe is possible almost anywhere in the world, but only if you have the right equipment, along with well-sourced plant ingredients from the best terroirs and, of course, a solid foundation of traditional techniques and protocols. I think the artisan food and drink movement in the States has created an interesting environment for high-quality absinthe production. Once well-made absinthes become better appreciated in the USA, France might once again embrace them, and I look forward to the time when absinthe will be regarded once again as a world-class spirit.

What are you doing tonight? My daughter is now on school holiday with her grandparents in Marseille, so I plan to meet my wife for Korean near the Opera. That is, after I try to work off excesses from my recent American trips at my gym L’Usine, one place that definitely doesn’t see me near enough. I will finish the evening in front of the computer, working on what I hope will be a useful handbook for the modern absintheur.

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