Absinthe, an intense alcoholic spirit favored by artists such as Degas, Van Gogh, and Hemingway, is making a comeback in the United States after being banned by the government for almost 100 years.
Its rebirth in trendy bars is a triumph of marketing - and of maneuvering through a maze of federal rules on formulas and labels. It took distillers, importers, and attorneys years to navigate the bureaucracy, even after the drink was legalized again in Europe.
"This is a complex issue, and we are addressing it as best we can," said Art Resnick, a spokesman for the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, referring to the approval process.
Absinthe was believed to contain large concentrations of wormwood, a plant containing the chemical thujone, which could induce hallucinations. Imports of absinthe were banned by the US Agriculture Department in 1912 after other countries outlawed it.
Once bans on the liquor were lifted in Europe in the 1990s, the campaign began to restore absinthe to the cocktail menu in the United States. The winner would have a head start on marketing the drink, which costs $50 to $60 a bottle.
Lawyer Robert Lehrman, representing Swiss distillery Kubler & Wyss, cited endless quibbles by regulators. The biggest blow, he said, was last year when the bureau flatly rejected absinthe on the grounds that it was still illegal.
It took a meeting this February between regulators and the trade counselor from the Swiss Embassy to restart the process for Kubler.
In the meantime, the marketers have taken over.
"This is so easy," said Lyons Brown, chief executive of Altamar Brands LLC, distributor for Kubler. "The key is to just get it into the market with all the theatrics that go with it."