A Breath of Fresh Air in an Old Tin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Historical hearsay has it that when George III was told the Colonies were lost, he kicked his spaniel, felt a fit of fine madness coming on, yawned . . . and popped an Altoid.

Mariel Hemingway says when she's ready for her close-up and lunch contained more garlic than linguine . . . she'll chew an Altoid.

Comedian Joan Rivers is addicted to these original, celebrated, curiously strong peppermints. A distinctive red and white tin of Altoids rested at the right hand of prosecutor Christopher Darden throughout the O.J. Simpson trial. Rosie O'Donnell doesn't start a monologue without one.

"Guests get Drake cakes with milk," explains a representative for the show. "But Rosie chews Altoids."

And as chews Rosie, so munches America as it elevates Altoids, this 200-year-old clearer of throats and cleanser of moods and palates, into a phenom of chic that in five years has traveled faster than spilled latte.

Nobody quite knows why. Not the British makers of Altoids, their New York distributors, nor their Chicago advertising executives. Word-of-mouth has something to do with it. Cute bus shelter boards, alternative newspaper ads and wacko radio spots written by John Cleese in classic Monty Python mode have added to the exposure.

"But mostly it was a historical accident," theorizes Mark Sugden, who manages Altoids marketing from the Elmsford, N.Y., outpost of Callard & Bowser of England & Wales. "And it took place in a market where historical accidents work well."

That was Seattle, birthplace of Starbucks Coffee, DaVinci syrups, grunge rock, microbreweries and vertical downpours. Altoids had been a minor member of this major mix for almost four decades, but as an insignificant oddity, part of a package of Callard & Bowser candies, mostly butterscotch and toffee, foisted on a local distributor.

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Although obscure and undiscovered during those early years in America, Sugden says, Altoids always represented a rich, basic honesty; the same traditional, back-home appeal found with Seattle's Best Coffee and Red Hook ale. All share a thoroughness of flavor that in other corners of the world adds such a perverse desirability to black French tobacco, tangy Angus beef and Tennessee sour mash whiskey.

"Altoids certainly are strong tasting, pioneering what is being called 'The Power Mint,' " Sugden says. He is too much the English gentleman to slander LifeSavers, Tic Tacs and Certs as pepperwimps. York Peppermint Patties don't even enter his thinking. "Altoids do the job of breath freshening that breath fresheners are meant to do."

And so, five years ago, concurrent with the nation's taste buds salivating nicely for over-spiced Thai, Indian, Cuban and Cajun foods, Altoids began their pungent peppermint surge. Sales have grown 40% each year to a projected 1996 high of almost $20 million. As Cleese, the breath-of-fresh-air voice of Altoids, remarks, that's an awful lot of action for "snowy white little peppermint chaps in rather snazzy tins."

Consider:

* Altoids--three tablets contain 10 calories and zero fat, cholesterol, sodium or protein--are sold everywhere but outlying Jiffy Lube outlets. They are the nation's best-selling peppermints.

* Altoids have made Business Week's list of what's hot for the 1990s.

* Fan mail received by Callard & Bowser establish them as the breath mint of choice for actresses, choral societies, opera singers, pillow talkers, confessionals, dentists and those with bad breath in need of a dentist.

* A West Virginia speleologist dropped his mints down a 300-foot shaft and recovered them undamaged from what is now listed on spelunkers' maps as Altoids Pit. A New York woman collects discarded tins, paints them with birds, flowers and lighthouses, and recycles them as paper clip and button holders at handicraft fairs. A wilderness group uses them as solid fuel stoves for emergencies.

* And for further information, click on http://www.altoids.comm.

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But enough of the present.

Altoids were first mixed--from sugar, gum arabic, oil of peppermint, gelatin and glucose syrup--at the turn of the 19th century by London confectioner William Smith. He marketed them for almost 100 years as "a stomach calmative to relieve intestinal discomfort." Anti-gas tablets.

By the 1920s, Altoids (from the Greek "alt," to change, and "oids," taking the form of) had raised their medicinal purposes to snake oil levels: "They act as an antidote to poisons in the stomach . . . not a sweetmeat, but medicinal lozenges . . . two taken after meals will stop any poisonous fermentation . . . curiously strong peppermints, of special strength and consequent value as a carminative." Or more gas-busting.

By the 1930s, still free from any British equivalent of the FDA, they were touted as a quasi-food supplement and diet pill, certainly as "a splendid remedy against the distressing effects of fasting too long."

Then came migration to the Pacific Northwest.

And the rest, as we know, is considerable.

Perhaps their heftiest hero is Cleese, who never promotes a product he doesn't use. He considers Altoids perfect for the social rehabilitation of smokers of Venezuelan cigars, polecat breeders and people with a serious fried onion ring habit.

But, he has confessed in radio commercials, there is a deucedly difficult problem with remembering the name.

"I suppose you could think of altos with adenoids," Cleese announces. "Or an altimeter on an asteroid. I think it is best if you ask for the curiously strong peppermints the English army breathed on Napoleon at Waterloo."

There's Altoids' mark on history again.

Which raises an intriguing point.

If George III had sent Altoids instead of tea to his American Colonies, the revolution might have fizzled and we'd all be speaking English.

Imagine Concord with Altoids.

A shot of fresh breath heard around the world.

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Top 10 Things to Do With Altoids Tins Altoids' curiously strong Web site at http://www.altoids.com offers David Letterman-like suggestions for reusing the famed tins.

* Pour water in it and watch it rust.

* Use it as a condom pouch.

* Keep a tiny diary in it about imaginary friends.

* Put oregano in it to use as a hilarious gag if cops ever pull you over.

* Put other mints in it and infuriate your friends.

* Place all that random Third World currency rejected by vending machines in it.

* Use it as a doggy bag for nouvelle cuisine.

* It's an appropriate final resting place for beloved goldfish.

* It's a place to put nose ring before any interview.

* Write a note to yourself about everything that gets on your nerves about your parents. Put it in the tin, bury it and open about 20 years from now. See if you are the same kind of parent your parents were.

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