Seizures of liquor bottles at 29 bars and restaurants in New Jersey on Wednesday were intended to protect customers from a dishonest way to increase profits, state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said Thursday.
“Operation Swill” targeted establishments that were allegedly substituting premium alcoholic beverages with “well brand spirits,” or non-premium brands, Chiesa said at a Thursday news conference in Trenton.
Among those businesses was Yesterday’s in Marmora, Upper Township, where an owner has denied any wrongdoing. Other local business owners are planning a rally next week in support of Yesterday’s.
In Trenton on Thursday, Chiesa called the alleged scheme a “dishonest ruse.”
“It is a slap in the face to the consumer. 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 towards 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 added.
Alcoholic Beverage Control investigators visited the restaurants Wednesday, inspected the bar areas and seized all opened bottles of the following brands: Finlandia, Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose and Ketel One vodkas; Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Gordon’s gin; Bacardi Light, Bacardi Dark and Captain Morgan Spiced rum; Johnny Walker Black and Dewar’s scotch; Jack Daniel’s Black Label, Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark whiskey; and Jose Cuervo Silver, Jose Cuervo Gold and Patron Silver tequila.
The approximately 1,000 bottles seized are being securely stored with the ABC Investigations Bureau, the Attorney General’s Office said in a statement. The alcohol will go through several more rounds of testing by the ABC and the manufacturers.
The establishments were targeted because of information from “confidential informants, consumer complaints and testing of samples conducted by both the ABC and the manufacturers of the brands,” the Attorney General’s Office stated.
Samples were taken in January and February when ABC investigators visited 63 licensed establishments across the state, paying for drinks ordered “neat” — that is with no ice or mixer. Some of the locations visited had previous complaints against them, the statement said, and some were chosen at random.
At the time of the seizure, investigators took statements from employees and also demanded sales records, the statement said. The restaurants “will have seven days to provide sales and invoice records that include information about the 20 brands. They will also have to provide to the ABC information about the employees that were working the day samples were taken and the retail prices from the last nine months of the targeted brands.”
Penalties range from a 5-day suspension for the first offense to a 15-day suspension for the third offense, though multiple violations could ensue. ABC regulations could also allow for a 30-day suspension for any illegal activity, as well as a 30-day suspension for not cooperating in the investigation.
In a statement Wednesday, Jeff McIntyre, one of the owners of Yesterday’s, said that “These charges are completely untrue and without merit. The McIntyre family and Yesterday’s stands 100 percent upon their reputation, personal and professional integrity and contribution to the community over the last 37 years.”
On Thursday, local business owners also vouched for the McIntyres and said they are planning to hold a rally Wednesday evening at Yesterday’s to show support for the business.
“It’s like he’s guilty before he’s even proven guilty,” said Tom Nuscis, owner of Pappy’s Pig Roast in Marmora, who is helping to organize the event.
Nuscius said he could not understand why the ABC would apparently make a public statement that it is investigating these establishments for liquor swapping before completing the testing. He said it now hurts the restaurants’ reputation regardless of whether they are proven innocent.
“To release it this way is totally wrong for the state,” he said.
He estimated that hundreds to more than 1,000 people are expected to arrive at the restaurant on Roosevelt Boulevard around 6 p.m., including many business owners who, while technically competitors, want to show their support for the restaurant’s integrity.
Anyone with information on illegal activity can call the ABC confidentially at 866-713-8392.
Staff writer Lee Procida contributed to this report.
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