Alcohol can inspire some ridiculous behavior—and we’re not just talking about regrettable tabletop dances. Over the past eight decades, people have gone to court again and again on behalf of their favorite libations. Here are eight of the craziest liquor-laced legal disputes.
1. The Battle for Bacardi
What’s in a name? Quite a bit if that name is Bacardi. In 1936, just three years post-prohibition, the family-owned rum company took legal action against several New York bars and restaurants that were serving so-called Bacardi cocktails using lesser-quality liquor. In the eventual New York Supreme Court case, attorneys for Bacardi brought in Justice John L. Walsh’s own bartender to testify. (He swore he only ever used Bacardi in the judge’s favorite rum cocktails.) Swayed, Walsh ruled that mixing a Bacardi drink without the eponymous rum was “subterfuge and a fraud” on behalf of the consumers.
2. A Dark ‘N Stormy Showdown
Fun fact: a Dark ‘n Stormy isn’t really a Dark ‘n Stormy unless it’s made with ginger beer and—this is the key—Gosling’s Black Seal rum. In the late 1970s, Gosling’s, the manufacturer behind the dark liquor, began trademarking their version of the Dark ‘n Stormy in Bermuda (where the company is based), North America, the Caribbean and across much of Western Europe and Asia. (They forgot about Australia—oops.) To this day, they take their legal claim seriously, going after any rum-producing competitor who dares to suggest that its liquor can be used in the cocktail. (Tweaking the name a little isn't enough to escape their attention: in April, Gosling's went after black rum producer Proximo Spirits for their "Kraken Storm" recipe.) In an interview with The New York Times, company president E. Malcolm Gosling Jr. said they defend the trademark “vigorously, which is a very time-consuming and expensive thing.”
3. A Major Pain
In 2011, Pusser’s Rum—a company that has trademarked their signature Pusser’s Painkiller libation —filed suit against New York City bar Painkiller. Their complaint: that the popular Lower East Side tiki bar had stolen their name and their drink. (The bar's version of the fruit juice, rum, and cream of coconut cocktail was made without Pusser’s liquor.) In the settlement, the owners of Painkiller agreed to change the bar’s name, abandon the use of the term Painkiller and their namesake drink (unless it was made with Pusser’s rum), and turn over their website domain. Two years later, the newly dubbed PKNY folded up its cocktail umbrellas for good when the owners were unable to renew the bar’s lease.
4. Wax Off
In 2012, Maker's Mark successfully sued the producers of Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia tequila, claiming the red wax coating atop their bottle deliberately resembled the bourbon brand's trademarked seal and would cause confusion among consumers. Eventually a three-judge panel in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Calling the signature red wax seal an “extremely strong” trademark, the panel ruled that Beam Inc.—the manufacturer of Maker’s Mark—could stop rival alcohol companies from using a similar seal.
5. Partner in crime?
In 2013, five Idaho inmates blamed it on the alcohol by filing a $1 billion lawsuit against several top booze companies. The prisoners—serving time for crimes ranging from grand theft to manslaughter—sued the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller Brewing, and the owner of Jim Beam whiskey, asserting that their products had led them to commit crimes. (Without an attorney, they drafted the litigation themselves.) “I have spent a great deal of that time in prison because of situations that have arose because of people being drunk," convict Jeremy Brown said in his affidavit. "At no time in my life, prior to me becoming an alcoholic, was I ever informed that alcohol was habit forming and addictive." Unfortunately for the prisoners, their suit was thrown out by the judge presiding over the case, who wrote that "…it is commonly known to the public that alcohol poses an obvious danger—encompassing many different subcategories of danger—to those who choose to consume it."
6. Beer Smear
In 2013, Anheuser-Busch was sued by beer-drinkers across multiple states for allegedly watering down 11 of their beers. (Among the quaffs targeted: Budweiser, Bud Light Platinum, and Black Crown.) The consumers—who said they received their information from a former Anheuser-Busch employee—claimed the company added water and CO2 in the final stages of the brewing process, lowering the alcohol content by three to eight percent. The beer enthusiasts sought $5 million in damages, plus a court order that would require a corrective advertising campaign. But in 2014 the suit was dismissed when an Ohio judge ruled Anheuser-Busch’s alcohol content was within 0.3 percent of the amount stated on the label—the range required by the Federal Alcohol Administration.
7. Small-town Spirit
A Chicago law firm filed a class action lawsuit against Templeton Rye in September 2014, claiming the Midwest company intentionally misled consumers. Their advertising campaign said that they brewed the craft whiskey in small-town Templeton, Iowa (population: 358), using a Prohibition-era recipe. But in reality the spirit was distilled in a (gasp!) Indiana factory, following directions from a stock recipe. In January, the Des Moines Register reported that the lawsuit was on hold for mediation, signaling a settlement may be forthcoming. In the meantime, the company has announced plans to start printing labels declaring the whiskey is distilled in Indiana and bottled in Iowa.
8. "The Antithesis of Handmade"
Last September, Tito’s Handmade Vodka faced a similar fate. A class action lawsuit was filed in California, saying the Texas-based distillery cannot possibly be manufacturing the 15 million bottles they sell annually “in an old fashioned pot” as the label claims. "The vodka was made, manufactured and/or produced in massive buildings containing 10 floor-to-ceiling stills and bottling 500 cases an hour using automated machinery that is the antithesis of 'handmade,' “ reads the lawsuit. By May 2015, at least eight class action lawsuits had been filed challenging the company’s use of the term “handmade.”