Rubbing alcohol, dirty water found in some N.J. bar drinks

Funnels were among items confiscated from bars and restaurants during an investigation into whether some substituted cheap liquor or worse for premium brands. JULIO CORTEZ / AP
Funnels were among items confiscated from bars and restaurants during an investigation into whether some substituted cheap liquor or worse for premium brands. JULIO CORTEZ / AP (JULIO CORTEZ / Associated Press)
Posted: May 25, 2013

Jim Beam, Jose Cuervo, and Johnny Walker are in the pokey.

State investigators confiscated 1,000 open bottles from 29 bars and restaurants across the state to see whether the contents were premium brands or substituted cheap booze - or worse - and being sold as the good stuff.

On Thursday, state officials released new details of a yearlong investigation, "Operation Swill," that found rubbing alcohol, dirty water, and food coloring in a few cocktails sold as premium drinks.

"This alleged scheme is a dishonest ruse to increase profits, and it is a slap in the face to the consumer," state Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa said during a news conference in Trenton. "Consumers should have the peace of mind of knowing that they will get what they spent their hard-earned money on every single time, no exceptions."

"I believe Operation Swill will go a long way toward restoring that peace of mind and will also serve as a warning to anyone currently engaging in, or thinking about engaging in, this fraudulent practice," Chiesa said.

Officials did not disclose which businesses used the rubbing alcohol, food dye, or dirty water. Officials said no health issues were reported.

The investigation started last year after customers complained, and confidential informants and undercover detectives covertly obtained samples to be field-tested.

None of the proprietors have been charged. Officials from the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control have requested inventory and sales records, as well. Depending on the results of the investigation, business owners could be cited and have their liquor licenses suspended, division spokesman Zach Hosseini said.

Initially, investigators visited 63 businesses where 150 premium drinks were ordered without ice or mixers. Some of the businesses had complaints against them; others were chosen at random.

About 30 samples came back tainted. On Wednesday, 100 investigators raided 29 businesses of those believed to be pouring cheap booze into bottles with labels such as Grey Goose, Maker's Mark, and Tanqueray.

"It's sad to see things like that happen in the industry because it could be a bad reflection on a lot of businesses that are trying to keep their doors open legitimately," said Paul Villari, owner of Villari's Bistro Bar & Grill in Palmyra. He said he was concerned that customers might confuse his business with a similarly named restaurant in Gloucester Township that was raided and that has no affiliation with his bistro.

"We've been in business for 65 years," Villari said. "We do the right thing, and we want to make the customer happy."

Michael Halfacre, director of the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said the state receives numerous consumer complaints each year.

"These cases can be difficult to prosecute because of the fleeting nature of the offense, and evidence of the offense is nearly impossible to collect after the fact," Halfacre said.

Of the 29 businesses the state identified, 13 were TGI Fridays franchises in West Orange, East Windsor, Old Bridge, North Brunswick, Piscataway, Freehold, Marlboro, Hazlet, East Hanover, Linden, Woodbridge, Springfield, and Clifton.

On Thursday, TGI Fridays corporate president Ricky Richardson issued the following statement:

"We consider the alleged actions detailed by the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control to be very disturbing. If accurate, they would represent a violation of our company's values and our extensive bar and beverage standards which are designed to deliver the highest guest experience in our restaurants. We have zero tolerance for actions that undermine the trust of our guests and call into question the reputation we have built up over the past 48 years."

Among area businesses authorities say they raided Wednesday were Sunset Tavern in Burlington, Graziano's Ristorante in Chesilhurst, Villari's Lakeside in Gloucester Township, and Italian Affair in Glassboro.

Calls seeking comment from those businesses were not returned Thursday.

The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control has a toll-free hotline, 866-713-8392, to report illegal activity.


Contact Barbara Boyer

at 856-779-3838, bboyer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @BBBoyer.

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