Graham Wasilition is in the liquor business. He just happens to own and manage a brand of absinthe, an alcohol stereotyped by its green color and supposed ability to cause hallucinations.
Wasilition, once a materials engineer, is now the founder and managing partner of Tenneyson Absinthe Royale, a white absinthe with a name inspired by famous poet and absinthe drinker, Lord Alfred Tennyson.
Absinthe was popular in the 19th century. The phyloxera bug killed off grape vines used for wine in France. But absinthe, created from a sugar beet base, could still be made cheaply and well. However, when the wine business began to flourish again, the wine companies painted absinthe as dangerous and wild. It was first banned in 1914, but remained illegal after the end of Prohibition due to it’s association with insanity and death. Wasilition, a Virginia Tech alumnus, moved to Austin for his first job as an engineer in July 2006. While he was not thinking about creating an absinthe brand, Wasilition knew he eventually wanted to work for himself.
“I was kind of an efficiency/innovation engineer,” Wasilition said. “But I’ve always wanted to work for myself. And working for a company like that, you make good money pretty quickly. I felt like if I continued down that path I would be making too good of money too soon and not be able to leave that situation. ”
In 2007, absinthe was legalized in the U.S. The drink became exciting again, but more so as a novelty drink that only the most wild and dangerous of bachelor parties would bring out and light on fire.
“There were products that tried to leverage the kind of hallucinogenic, scary history of absinthe rather than actually trying to make a good, quality product,” Wasilition said. “It’s legal. It’s not some drug. And once you realize that, having a company market to you as, ‘this is a drug,’ it’s not a product a lot of people stick with.”
Intrigued by the mystique surrounding absinthe, Wasilition began his research. He discovered a small absinthe culture that knows how to enjoy the drink properly, with no fire and no hallucinations.
“A classic true absinthe shouldn’t be anymore hallucinogenic than any other high proof booze,” Wasilition said. “Absinthe is just another kind of buzz. It’s a very clear-minded, clear-headed, creative kind of feel.”
Wasilition drew in people like David Nathan-Maister, author of “The Absinthe Encyclopedia,” with his vision for the drink, a vision that relied less on gimmicks and danger and more on having a unique experience. After two and a half years of experimenting with recipes and brand ideas, Wasilition began selling Tenneyson in 2011. By marketing his product as similar to gin (white absinthe and gin have the same distilling process) he hoped to make absinthe more accessible.
“People understand gin a lot better than they understand absinthe,” Wasiliiton said. He explained that Tenneyson incorporates juniper berry in their absinthe, the key ingredient in gin, so that while Tenneyson is a true white absinthe, its style is very gin-like and opens the absinthe category to a wider audience.
Tenneyson is currently sold in seven states, even though Wasilition said he doesn’t spend any money on marketing. Tenneyson also won 2 gold medals — for spirit and packaging — at last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
“[Wasilition’s] product in particular will continue to flourish because Austin is a city of homers, people just absolutely root for the home team,” Justin Elliott, bar manager at The Volstead Lounge, said. “As people learn more and more that there’s absinthe that is more or less traditional, produced in Pont but owned by a local guy [Wasilition will] continue to get a lot of good traction that way. ”
Wasilition has recently employed the help of three UT McCombs business students, Matt Ciferri, Brian Egan and Sean Kirtman, to continue growing his brand.
“It’s a very exciting spot to be in,” Ciferri, management information system senior, said. “Ever since absinthe was legalized in 2007, people have been waiting for something big to happen and finally have it become a mainstay in the liquor industry.”
Wasilition recognized the same curiosity in Ciferri, Egan, and Kirtman as he had when first delving into the business world.
“You can never really get involved with something like this unless you ask,” Wasilition said. “When I first started looking at this type of business, I was emailing these big companies and would get an email back maybe half the time. But then I started talking to smaller companies and you have a lot more luck there. You can get a job with any of these small companies you just have to reach out and do it.”