Anti-Deceptive Whiskey Crusade Takes Wrong Turn In Maker’s Mark Lawsuit. Or Did It?
By Richard Thomas
Many in American whiskey circles felt they had scored a major victory earlier this year when Templeton Rye, long considered the top offender among those bloggers and enthusiasts concerned with deceptive practices in the whiskey industry, first came clean and pledged to change their ways and then found itself saddled with a consumer protection lawsuit. Some crowed that this would surely be the first of many, and salivated at the prospect that other targets of their ire, such as Michter’s and Whistle Pig, would surely find themselves in a courtroom.
Yet that is not how things have turned out. Instead, the next company to find itself sued for misleading marketing is Maker’s Mark. According to The Lexington Herald Leader, a lawsuit very similar to those filed in San Diego, California against Templeton Rye and Tito’s Vodka was filed against the Loretto, Kentucky distillery, part of the larger Beam-Suntory corporation. Thus whiskey fans face the irony of what is only the second anti-deceptive whiskey lawsuit being directed against a company that no one had previously accused of being deceptive.*
What the angry whiskey nerd circuit didn’t reckon on was that the Templeton Rye lawsuit has nothing to do with truth and justice, although perhaps it has a little something to do with the American Way. In this instance, that means lawyers chasing a buck.
Both cases are very typical of how consumer class action suits get started, with an entrepreneurial firm starting legal action based on something they saw in the media, all in hopes of cashing in. When I inquired about the Templeton Rye lawsuit, I was advised by several lawyers and legal observers that cases of this type very rarely start at the grass roots, the named plaintiffs. Instead they almost invariably begin with the lawyers pressing the case, who are also the only party concerned who really profit in the event of a settlement or court victory.
Essentially it’s all about lawyers creating work for themselves. Consequently suits like these tend to follow the money, and that means going after a company with deep pockets, like Beam Suntory.
But Why Maker’s?
Keeping that in mind, the idea that someone would take up the deceptive whiskey crusade and attack another small bottling company was always improbable. The cases against most companies are not nearly as good as so many of the angry blogging circuit think they are. None are as clear cut as the Templeton Rye case, and most collapse under disinterested and reasonable scrutiny. No one pursues a thin, long shot case like that against small fry, not when there are big fish in the lake.
And the case against Maker’s Mark is thin. The lawsuit alleges Maker’s Mark is made in an automated process with little or no human intervention, so the “handmade” claim made by the company is false. Yet we live in a world where a “Made in America” car is assembled mostly from parts fabricated in Brazil, China, Korea and Mexico. The consumer environment is fashioned wholesale out of marketing spin, and against that backdrop the fact that Maker’s Mark hand-dips and seals their bottles in red wax is sufficient to validate the “handmade” claim. Were that not enough, Maker’s Mark also manually rotates their barrels inside their warehouses during the aging process, a most uncommon practice in the bourbon industry.
Even though it did not have to be literally the very next step in the anti-deceptive whiskey crusade, a lawsuit like this one was inevitable, a point that should serve as a reminder for many croakers out there to be careful what they wish for, such as for the creation of an American version of the Scotch Whisky Association. You don’t need to be in a Greek tragedy for it to rebound on you in ugly and unforeseen ways.
* Editor’s Note: Not unless you count the New Coke conspiracy theories floated during the abandoned move to cut Maker’s Mark’s proof from 90 to 86 last summer.