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Drinking In Culture 

Crillon Importers focuses on introducing new and sophisticated libations, such as Absente (left), a legal version of the favorite some say inspired most of the artwork of the 18th century, and OP, a fruit-and-spice-flavored Swedish vodka.

'[Crillon owner Michael Roux] is a visionary in this field. He was one of the pioneers in the flavored vodka territory ... he's been first at a lot of things.'

-- Jim Nikola, Crillon Marketing

Bringing new, sophisticated tastes and sips of foreign culture to the American drinking public is the hallmark of Crillon Importers, which recently introduced two new products to the New Orleans market: OP flavored vodka from Absolut and Absente, a legal version of the once-popular intoxicant enjoyed by 19th century artists.

OP, with roots in Sweden, has a unique taste because it is flavored with both fruit and an aged aquavit spice mixture, says Jim Nikola, vice president of marketing for Crillon.

"It's a very interesting, modern interpretation of flavored vodka," he says. "Most flavored vodkas are a single thing, flavored with fruit or with spice; this is flavored with both. It's probably the ultimate flavored spirit."

The Swedish vodka is flavored with peach, orange, ginger and aquavit spices that have been aged in oak barrels for eight months themselves before they are added to the aged liquor.

"It took us two years to make the liquid," Nikola says of OP. "We took our time to do it right." In addition to a new taste experience, OP provides Americans with a glimpse into Swedish attitude.

"Sweden is an ultra-modern society that has a real reverence for tradition; OP is a real window into that culture. Aquavit is to Sweden what whiskey is to Ireland. It's the national drink."

Crillon also has brought back a European flavor known as a libation for writers, artists and imbibers in the know: Absente. The original 150-proof absinthe, which was heavily laden with a narcotic produced by the wormwood tree, was favored in the 1800s because of its flavor and extremely intoxicating effect but later was outlawed in most Western countries because of that composition.

"It's the only one available now in this market," Nikola says. "We used a recipe from Provence, which is the origination of absinthe. We slightly refined the recipe to replace wormwood with southern wormwood, which brought down the levels of ... the narcotic substance that caused it to be banned in the first place." Developers also lowered the alcohol content to 110 proof.

"We want people to understand that this is an authentic absinthe, we've just modified it so we could bring it into the market," Nikola says. "It's only slightly modified, however. It's a safer version for sure, but it still has the allure of the absinthe of the past. I don't think people generally want to drink something that's 150 proof."

Absente marketed by Crillon already is gaining popularity, with some local bars concocting special recipes for the liquor such as the Absente Frappe. It may never be the No. 1 drink in America; it does capture a market of consumers with sophisticated tastes who are attracted to the European flavor.

"It's a very specific taste," Nikola says of Absente. "It's a very European type of product and Americans aren't that used to it. [On the up-side,] there is the association with the famous artists, poets, writers -- Hemmingway, Van Gogh, Manet -- in Europe. They say most of the artwork of the 18th century was inspired by absinthe.

"There's also an allure to the image of absinthe. It's a very cool, in-the-know fashion badge almost. You're making a statement about yourself drinking Absente: you're in the know, cutting edge and individual."

Nikola says the uniqueness of Absente and OP are testament to the business acumen of Crillon owner Michel Roux, who was the first person to market Absolut vodka in the 1980s and Stolichnaya vodka in new flavors, bringing great success to both products. He opened Crillon Importers a couple of years ago.

"He's a visionary in this field," Nikola says of Roux. "He was one of the pioneers in the flavored vodka territory, which was one of the reasons he saw the potential of OP ... for the more sophisticated palate." Roux also is responsible for the lovely blue Bombay Sapphire Gin and for making Grand Marnier a success. Nikola predicts Crillon will continue to introduce innovative liquor products to the U.S. market.

"He's been first at a lot of things," Nikola says, "He started Crillon a couple of years ago, and it's just been getting better and better every year."

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