By Margot Patrick
LONDON--Lehman Brothers is gone, but anyone wanting to savor the distinct taste of financial ruin that its name evokes has ways to do so.
With a dram of Lehman Brothers Scotch, say.
"It has a contrite, bereft peatiness," says James Green, a 34-year-old London entrepreneur who has created a new liquor line with the doomed bank's logo.
He is describing his flagship Scotch whisky, labeled Ashes of Disaster. "The remit to the master blender was to taste the ups and downs of the economic devastation of 2008."
That year Lehman hit the rocks, helping trigger the global financial crisis. But its name lives on.
"Lehman moment" is shorthand for failure of companies, politicians and countries. Rap lyrics, cartoons and concept artists have invoked the name.
"It's an explosive brand with great intrinsic value," says Mr. Green, who plans to offer his spirits online and has gotten orders from bars in London and New York.
But the Lehman name's owner, too, claims its intrinsic value. Barclays PLC, which bought parts of the firm in bankruptcy, tried in 2014 to block Mr. Green's using the name. It said in U.S. trademark filings it "has a bona fide intention to use" the name for financial services. Barclays declined to comment.
Lehman Brothers was once a strong brand in a good way. Founded in 1850, it was a global finance leader going into the 21st century.
But after Lehman filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, already-shaky markets swooned, and governments poured money into bailouts.
"Lehman moment" soon came to describe problems elsewhere, etymologist Barry Popik says. China is a frequent sufferer, judging from news reports.
In his 2011 book, "Our Queen," journalist Robert Hardman wrote that for Britain's royal family, the "Lehman moment is still the day, in 1987, when Prince Edward put on Tudor fancy dress and cajoled certain members of his family to take part in a televised game show," making them look less than royal.
The name appeared in movie and song. In the 2010 movie "Despicable Me," villain-turned-hero Gru enters "Bank of Evil" through a urinal, seeking funds for his plot to steal the moon. Beneath the bank's sign appeared: "Formerly Lehman Brothers."
A 2009 Black Eyed Peas lyric about the high life rhymed Lehman with semen. Dre Murray in 2013 rapped: "And the boy stay scheming, thief like Lehman."
A Danish artist group dubbed itself "Lehman Brothers" for several Copenhagen art-gallery exhibitions exploring capitalism's underbelly.
The exhibitions riffed on the crisis's causes in multimedia works that included a gram of cocaine blown by a fan across a glass table and frozen fish thawing to represent themes like greed and inequality.
Kim Kilde, one of the artists, says the group declared bankruptcy last March "due to lack of assets and funding."
Mr. Green, to pitch his booze, is seeking investors to open Lehman Brothers bars on Wall Street and in London.
A serial entrepreneur, he lighted on the idea in 2013 while trying to decide where to drink with friends from London financial firms.
He worked with distillers in Scotland and South Carolina to create three blends. Snapfire, an American-made spicy whiskey that "almost offends the palate," he says, is meant to evoke the financial-system collapsing.
Ashes of Disaster is a Scotch with peatiness "tempered with humility to demonstrate the lack of activity that followed the devastation," he says. Evergreen, a Scotch with "notes of growth and promise," represents rebirth.
"We want people to taste the story," Mr. Green says.
Labeling a bottle Lehman tracks a branding tactic of using words with negative connotations to be edgy. Satan sells numerous liquors, including Jim Beam's Devil's Cut. Irish whiskey Titanic was introduced in 2011 to mark the 100th anniversary of the doomed ship's launching.
The downside of the Lehman moniker, says Dean Crutchfield, a New York brand consultant: "It is building recognition out of a name that disgusted millions of people on the planet."
"There is the issue of association and people not wanting to be associated with the bank that brought down the world economy."
Mr. Green struggled to get the name past the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A case examiner rejected his application in 2013, saying consumers could be misled, writing: "Although the investment firm did not distribute or produce beer or spirits, the institution associated with the 'Lehman Brothers' name is so famous that a connection to the firm would be presumed."
Mr. Green's lawyer, Robert Garson, responded in an appeal: "Lehman Brothers is evocative of impending doom arising out of imminent failure." Using it for alcohol "merely conjures up images associated with the term."
In short, Mr. Garson says, "no one is going to think the products are actually being made by Lehman Brothers."
The trademark office approved Mr. Green's application in 2014.
Barclays wouldn't drink to that, filing an objection. It acquired the name's rights in 2008 and licenses it to the bankruptcy estate still winding down operations Barclays didn't buy.
Barclays in its filing said Lehman was "one of the most ubiquitous and well-known marks" in financial services and approving it for spirits would dilute its "distinctive quality."
It noted Lehman once helped a U.S. whiskey company go public and another time gave clients a gift of "a cut crystal whiskey decanter etched with the mark Lehman Brothers."
A few months after Mr. Green registered the name for spirits, Barclays ran into its own problems trying to register it to use for brokerage, investment banking and other financial services.
The trademark office initially refused its application, saying Lehman is "primarily merely a surname." It eventually approved the application, but Mr. Green then objected.
Barclays and Mr. Green have held settlement talks, according to a filing, but haven't reached an agreement.
Mr. Crutchfield, the consultant, says the Lehman name might fly for spirits by appealing to bankers.
But it should never again be seen in financial services, he says. "The brand association is: You failed and took down millions of people and bankrupted them."
Write to Margot Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org