As The Wormwood Turns
Fans of absinthe, the notoriously intoxicating emerald-hued liquor popular in the 19th century, toasted their good fortune last year when the U.S. government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) lifted a nearly 100-year-old ban on the spirit. The handful of Absinthe distillers rejoiced, too—until they started tangling with still-nervous TTB officials over label designs. After all, absinthe’s bad reputation, which led to the ban in Europe and the U.S. in the first place, was linked to its mysterious power to drive drinkers mad. (Van Gogh reportedly downed a few shots of the anise-flavored brew before slicing off his ear.)
In relaunching absinthe to a new generation, distillers and designers had to navigate some tricky issues. One was ensuring that their brands were free or nearly free of the wormwood-derived substance thujone, said to be the toxic compound, found in the original drink, that drove all those artists crazy. TTB guidelines also stipulated that bottle and ad graphics could not “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects.” And the word “absinthe” couldn’t stand alone on the label, because the drink isn’t considered a special category like rum or vodka, but falls under a more general section called “distilled spirits.”
The solution to the latter problem was relatively easy: “absinthe” became “absinthe supérieure” or “absinthe Française.” But graphic designers had more of a challenge when faced with drawing a connection between absinthe’s roots as a classic drink—one that carried a whiff of druggy exoticism—without violating TTB restrictions on promoting purportedly mind-blowing beverages.
That’s why Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits, the Alameda, California–based maker of a new absinthe called St. George, aimed for a little of both. “We wanted some weirdness but with a timeless feel,” Winters explains. The original St. George label design—a monkey banging on a skull with a femur—went through seven official TTB rejections and 30 different iterations before gaining approval. A monkey? “It’s how the liquor makes you feel,” Winters says.
The restrictions led to some creative solutions—a positive thing, Winters says, because when it comes to liquor marketing, “the party is in the bottle and the label is the invitation to the party.” With prices ranging from $55 to $75 a bottle, the party had better be good, especially for a drink with a flavor that ranges, some say, from soap to Listerine. (It’s an acquired taste.)
I.D. examined four recent arrivals to the revived absinthe market, with labels aimed at making the legendary spirit appeal to 21st-century drinkers—without waking the dogs.
Ernest Beck is a New York–based freelance writer.
Lucid Dramatic yellow cat eyes—inspired by posters from the 19th-century Parisian cabaret Le Chat Noir—stand out against Lucid’s dark-green bottle. The cabaret, says Jared Gurfein, chief executive of distiller Viridian, “was a watering hole for Bohemians,” many of whom presumably imbibed absinthe; the name Lucid was chosen because that’s how they typically described their state of mind while under its influence. An early version of Lucid’s bottle had a Gothic look, but Gurfein wanted something “intriguing and mysterious and not too classical,” he explains. Too classical would suggest the drink is only for hard-core connoisseurs, not the average drinking dude (the target market, further evidenced by the step-by-step instructions on how to drink absinthe printed on the back of the bottle). Distiller: Viridian Spirits, New York Designer: Bertrand Plessis
Swiss Absinthe Supérieure Kübler This classic label reflects both Kübler’s heritage—the distiller’s great-grandfather started the brand in 1863—and absinthe’s roots (the Swiss claim to have invented it). Forgoing mad monkeys and their ilk, this sober design describes the liquor as “a harvest of sumptuous herbs and alcohol,” as suggested by garden sprigs. Yet designer Gilbert Hummel did make some adjustments to satisfy the TTB, which opposed the word “absinthe” in too-bold letters on the back. An original version also featured a Swiss cross, which was rejected because of a TTB ban on national flags and replaced with the diamond seen here. After the flag was rendered in pale silver rather than traditional red and white, it was approved and will appear in a future iteration. Distiller: Blackmint Distillery, Motiers, Switzerland Designer: Gilbert Hummel
Le Tourment Vert David Turner added a contemporary edge to this French brand, whose name means “The Green Torment.” His bottle design is based on a traditional bistro carafe, and its frosted swirls have an Art Nouveau flair, but within the pattern is an unmistakably Satanic face (“a somewhat subversive, mischievous sprite,” corrects Turner). His message: If you drink this, “boy is it fun!” On the back are other faces that blend in with the abstract motif, including an insane monkey, a recurrent image in absinthe lore. After initial approval of the “sprite,” however, the TTB reconsidered its “hallucinatory” implications: new batches feature a less-discernible devil amid the swirls. Distiller: Distillerie Vinet Ege, Brie-sous-Archiac, France Designer: Turner Duckworth
St. George A pale olive-green label resembles an old stock certificate or bank note, harking back to the drink’s long history, while an illustration of a long-tailed monkey ringing a cowbell adds a quirky—and perhaps slightly psychotic—element. The TTB suggested the monkey bang a musical instrument rather than a human skull, because it would be less mind-altering in its implications, but Winters, the distiller, chose a cowbell in the end “because it was ridiculous, and they said a cowbell would be fine.” Distiller: St. George Spirits, Alameda, Calif. Designers: Gregg McGreevy, Egg Graphic Design, Bethany Steinsieck
Photography by Mark Weiss