Yesterday the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Associated Press all published stories about absinthe, the potent liquor that's been banned in the United States and other countries for nearly a century because it purportedly causes addiction, hallucinations, insanity, and criminal behavior. (Unlike, say, Scotch or vodka, right?) The news hook: the U.S. ban has been lifted, and the first American-made absinthe will go on sale later this month.
For branders and word buffs, there are several interesting things about this development:
- To gain approval by authorities in the U.S., the word "absinthe" must be qualified on the label by a second word such as "supérieure." The new American absinthe, made by St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, will be called Absinthe Verte (green absinthe.)
- Lance Winters, the distiller who created Absinthe Verte after 11 years of experimentation, applied seven times to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the division of the Treasury Department that approves alcohol packaging. Seven times the agency sent his label back. According to the Times story:
They thought it looked too much like the British pound note. They wondered why it was called Absinthe Verte when their lab analysis said the liquid inside was amber. Mostly, it seemed to him, they didn’t like the monkey.
“I had the image of a spider monkey beating on a skull with femur bones,” Mr. Winters said. But he said that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau thought the label “implied that there are hallucinogenic, mind-altering or psychotropic qualities” to the product.
“I said, ‘You get all that just from looking at a monkey?’”
The origin of the word absinthe is as cloudy as a glass of the liquor prepared in the traditional manner: diluted with water that's poured over a sugar cube. In the Times, reporter Pete Wells asserts that absinthe comes from Greek apsinthion, which means "undrinkable." But apsinthion can also mean "wormwood," the violently bitter herb that's the principal flavoring in absinthe. The word may ultimately derive from a Persian word for a different bitter herb.
As for brand names, "Absinthe Verte" can't compete with French-made Lucid, whose formula was created by New Orleans chemist T.A. Breaux and whose name is a clever counter to the old claims of absinthe-induced madness. And neither dares to be as sublimely nutty as Mansinthe, the Swiss-produced "official absinthe of Marilyn Manson." Mansinthe is reportedly 66.6% alcohol (as in 666, the official number of Satan). It's a pretty cool man-word, too.
Image: "The Absinthe Drinker," Pablo Picasso (1901).