By now you’ve likely heard of at least one of the lawsuits floating around: Tito’s Vodka, Maker’s Mark and Templeton have been in the news pretty often of late. If not, the short version is that each is being sued for such marketing claims as, “handmade” or “family recipe.” There are a couple of things going on, I’ll start with the easiest one first, Maker’s Mark.
The bottle is familiar, that square short bottle with the long neck that ends in a distinctive, red wax seal. Go into a bar, look to see what whiskey they have and it’s pretty easy to spot. Their label says it’s “handmade.” The suit alleges that there are machines that make this stuff, sounding like Skynet is making bourbon. The plaintiffs claim they were misled and “paid extra” for bourbon because of the label’s claim.< insert heavy sigh here>
In a triumph for common sense (that’s not so common these days), the judge dismissed the case, saying in part, that handmade couldn’t be interpreted “as meaning literally by hand nor that a reasonable consumer would understand the term to mean no equipment or automated process was used to manufacture the whisky.” Finally, a legal decision that’s easy to understand, makes sense and no jiggery-pokery was needed.
That was the easier one to follow. Now on to the suits that involve who made the hooch in the bottle. Templeton claims to have used an old recipe that was Al Capone’s favorite, to make their hooch in Iowa. Sounds possible, right? Well, it seems there’s more than one problem here. Not only was Al’s fave recipe not used, the booze isn’t made in Iowa, either, and certainly not by Templeton. Wait a second, hold on here. Who’s making the hooch in the bottle then? Before we cover that hot potato of a topic, let’s finish with Templeton. Basically, the class action lawsuit was settled, and people can get a refund for their purchase. Pretty standard end to what turned out to be a pretty clear-cut case, once the company basically admitted their deception. Admitting their deception is the key phrase here. There are a terms floating around you might not be familiar with – DSP (Distilled Spirits Producer – I make the stuff in my bottles) and NDP (Non-Distiller Produced – I buy hooch and bottle it under my label). The kerfuffle with Templeton is that they are really an NDP – they don’t make the stuff, but pretended like they did. And their label and marketing seemed to indicate that they did. This isn’t a tirade about the government’s inability to consistently review and approve labels – I’ll save that for another day. This is about a retailer being honest about who made the stuff.
Go to your fridge and you likely have a number of store brand products. Personally, I’m pretty fond of the Target versions of things like coffee and butter. If you look at the label, it says “distributed by” Target, which is pretty clear (though it still doesn’t say who made it). The problem with liquor is that there are a variety of terms used, and some can be misinterpreted. “Produced by” would seem to indicate that the company made the hooch. But if you look at another label that says, “distilled and bottled by,” what gives? What’s the difference? If it just says “bottled by,” then that’s pretty clear that they didn’t make the juice, though if that’s the only statement, it’s still not clear who made the liquor. You can learn a little bit more by looking at the city/state it’s made in. If the company is in one state, but it’s made in another, there you go, mystery partially solved.
Another dead giveaway is a 2 year old distillery…selling 10 year old hooch. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Whistle Pig, though they have finally come clean on that score). That’s a pretty easy one to spot, if you know to look for it.
Personally, this issue comes down to two things: transparency and what I want from a bottle of liquor. Tell me who made the liquor – I have no problem with sourced distillate, as long as you’re honest. The biggest provider of bulk whiskey is MGP out of Indiana. Some folks says “MGP” like it’s a bad word. The master distiller at MGP is no less a master of his craft because he sells in bulk for others to bottle, and I’d argue MORE of a master than some claiming the title. Clearly he makes good juice, otherwise, why would so many buy it?
Some also argue that most people don’t know, and don’t care, about this issue. Was the price good? Did it taste good? That’s usually all that matters to the average consumer. But with all the lawsuits, it seems that that argument may be losing its validity.
If you tell me where the booze is made, then I decide to buy it or not like I would any other bottle. But if your label is misleading or your backstory is a bit murky, then I’m definitely putting that bottle right back on the shelf.
Ben Franklin said that honesty is the best policy. (He also said beer is proof that god loves us, so he was a pretty smart guy). I’d encourage liquor brands to try practicing that honesty, because they may find educated consumers making different purchasing choices in the future.
Article: Jeanne Runkle