Want a Tanqueray and tonic? Maybe a Maker's Mark neat? There are nearly 30 places in New Jersey drinkers might want to avoid for the time being.
Investigators seized 1,000 bottles of open top-shelf liquor Wednesday from 29 establishments—including Villari's Lakeside in Gloucester Township—accused of passing off cheap booze as premium brands.
"Operation Swill" went after some establishments that had amassed customer complaints or confidential tips from insiders, while others were randomly targeted. State investigators went in Wednesday and seized all open bottles of:
- Vodka: Finlandia, Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose, Ketel One
- Gin: Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Gordon’s
- Rum: Bacardi Light, Bacardi Dark, Captain Morgan Spiced
- Scotch: Johnny Walker Black, Dewar’s
- Whiskey: Jack Daniel’s Black Label, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark
- Tequila: Jose Cuervo Silver, Jose Cuervo Gold, Patron Silver
The bars named in Operation Swill are all accused of pouring nonpremium brands into the high-end bottles to fool customers.
“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 Chiesa said in a release. “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.”
Management from Villari's Lakeside did not return calls for comment on the accusations. But Facebook commenters haven't been so quiet:
"wow, so totally disappointed, we are/were regulars. Can't believe you would do this. How much money do you need! Terribly terribly upset!"
"We have been coming to your restaurant for years, ordering Kettle One and Cranberry and you've been serving me cheap vodka all these years! Thanks for that!"
... Now I wonder if the $133.00 shot of Maccallan 30 yr single malt I had Sunday afternoon without being made aware of the price, before I took a sip, was actually 30 yr. old single malt scotch. ...
Others defended Villari's, noting that Operation Swill hasn't results in charges, or praising the staff.
The state Alcohol Control Board tested 150 samples using a new technology, the True Spirit Authenticator, to get a preliminary analysis of samples in short order. All drinks were ordered neat to avoid ice and other mixers. Samples also were sent to the laboratories of the brand manufacturers for further testing. Of the 150 samples, 30 were not the brand they purported to be, the release says.
Investigators on Wednesday also took statements from employees and served demands for sales records. The establishments have seven days to provide sales and invoice records that include information about the 20 brands of interest.
They will also have to provide the ABC information about the employees working the day samples were taken and the retail prices from the last nine months of the targeted brands.
Penalties for serving a drink other than what's ordered range from a five-day suspension for the first offense to a 15-day suspension for the third offense. If further testing proves any of the seized bottles did not contain the labeled alcohol, that bottle could have multiple violations based on the potential drinks that could have been poured from it.
ABC regulations also allow for a 30-day suspension for any illegal activity on the licensed premise and those locations could also face a 30-day suspension for not cooperating in the investigation.
“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.
The 29 establishments named in Operation Swill are:
- Railroad Café, East Rutherford
- The Brick House, Wycoff
- Sunset Tavern, Burlington
- Graziano’s Ristorante, Chesilhurst
- Villari’s Lakeside, Gloucester Township
- Yesterdays, Marmora
- TGI Friday's, West Orange
- Italian Affair, Glassboro
- Bells Tavern, Lambertville
- TGI Friday's, East Windsor
- Brunswick Grove, East Brunswick
- TGI Friday's, Old Bridge
- TGI Friday's, North Brunswick
- TGI Friday's, Piscataway
- TGI Friday's, Freehold
- TGI Friday's, Marlboro
- TGI Friday's, Hazlet
- Murray’s, Dover
- TGI Friday's, East Hanover
- Sona Thirteen, Morristown
- Blackthorn Restaurant, Parsippany
- Ruby Tuesday, Bridgewater
- TGI Friday's, Linden
- Café 34, Matawan
- Applebee’s, Kearny
- Cucina Calandara, Fairfield
- TGI Friday's, Hamilton
- TGI Friday's, Springfield
- TGI Friday's, Clifton
The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control has a toll-free hotline for citizens to report illegal activity to ABC’s Investigative Unit. Anyone with information on illegal activity is encouraged to call 1-866-713-8392. All information received via the ABC hotline will remain confidential.