Ever been offended by the sight of a bottle of booze?
The question surfaced earlier this month after the Liquor Control Board of Ontario rejected a new listing for Smashbomb Atomic IPA. The beer, made by Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery of Barrie, Ont., was deemed potentially upsetting in light of Canada's military missions in Libya and Afghanistan. Then there was the uncomfortable association of "smashed" and "bombed" with getting tanked in the civilian sense.
In a conciliatory move, the LCBO, keen to appease shoppers who have made craft beer one of its fastest growing categories, is working to resolve the issue peacefully. Flying Monkeys has been invited to tweak the label, which features a comic-book-style depiction of a bomb exploding over a skyline.
"We're not intending to change the name, but we're resubmitting the artwork," says Peter Chiodo, the brewery's founder.
Mr. Chiodo says his new beer, launched in bars and at the brewery's store 11 months ago, came by its name innocently enough. "Smash" is the home brewer's acronym for "single malt and single hop," a reference to the recipe, while "bomb" is an allusion to the heavily hopped, bitter taste, not its higher-than-average 6.2-per-cent alcohol. "We probably put 25 or 30 times the amount of hops in our beer compared with Budweiser or any macro-brewed beer," he says.
So there you have it, a tempest in a six-pack. But booze brands that occasionally bomb may be a sign of the times. Beverage-alcohol producers are increasingly developing kitschy, catchy label and packaging concepts to stand out from the pack. Inevitably, some are testing the limits of decorum (intentionally or not), running afoul of government agencies keen on flashing the social-responsibility card that underpins their monopoly status.
Last month, Maryland-based Flying Dog Brewery filed suit against the Michigan Liquor Control Commission over the latter's refusal to carry its Raging Bitch pale ale. At issue, at least explicitly, is a line proposed for the label designed by Ralph Steadman, an illustrator associated with "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson: "Remember, enjoying a Raging Bitch, unleashed, untamed, unbridled - and in heat - is pure gonzo." The state declared the 8.3-per-cent brew to be "detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of the general public."
Others may argue it is detrimental to the dignity of a certain gender. Predictably, the label features an angry-dog graphic. But you don't have to be a misogynist to detect a double entendre. Funny? Not to most people with an IQ higher than 8.3.The list of borderline booze brands goes on. Delirium Tremens, a 9-per-cent-alcohol Belgian brew named after the body tremors and disorientation that afflict people withdrawing from severe alcohol abuse, has been given the thumbs down by the LCBO. (It's available in Quebec for $3.45 a bottle.) Other Ontario bans have included the Russian vodka called Kalashnikov that comes in a bottle shaped like an AK-47 assault rifle and a grappa brand featuring hand-blown figurines in the bottle of a couple copulating like agile porn stars. In response to a complaint years ago, the LCBO pulled bottles of a vodka called Hetman that was emblazoned with the image of an infamous 17th-century Ukrainian ruler and "hero" associated with the massacre and purging of Jews and Poles. In British Columbia, the Liquor Distribution Branch has banned a bottle in the shape of an ammunition casing.
Sometimes the judgment calls can seem a stretch. As I reported last year, the LCBO banned Crystal Head vodka from its retail shelves because it felt the skull-shaped bottle does not resonate well with responsible drinking. Ontario remains the only jurisdiction in Canada where the excellent spirit, created by Canadian-born actor Dan Aykroyd and inspired by his fascination with Day of the Dead celebrations popular in Latin America, has been banned. I'm still miffed about that one because the product is so good. It's a pure, dry, old-school vodka - made with Newfoundland water and Canadian corn - that stands in contrast to the sweet-mellow trend exemplified by trendier premium brands.
That's the sad thing about many unusual, inflammatory or just plainly cheesy packages - they often contain serious, worthy fluid. Flying Monkeys and Flying Dog make great beer. So does Rogue of Oregon, whose kitschy beer offerings include Yellow Snow IPA. Fat Bastard, a French wine brand that managed to make it through the LCBO's (and other liquor boards') good-taste filter, is pretty decent juice for the money.
In the minds of many people, free speech, invariably cited by alcohol purveyors with a penchant for juvenile humour, sexual titillation or worse, may trump the sometimes seemingly arbitrary decisions of the retail police. But I wish the marketing whizzes responsible for the clearly offensive stuff would put a cork in it. Does good drink need to provoke?
Mr. Chiodo says that, like crafting a good beer, it's a matter of striking a balance. "You've got to have curb appeal at the store level [or]you get lost so easily," he says. "But we try not to take the shock value over the top."
The debate could froth up again later this spring when the LCBO launches Rogue's Double Dead Guy Ale. Yes, Dead Guy - named, ironically, for the Day of the Dead. Hear that, Mr. Aykroyd?