NBC10- Monique Braxton
29 New Jersey restaurants and bars are in trouble for promising top shelf alcohol and instead serving the cheap stuff. Prosecutors call it Operation Swill. They say customers are getting cheated and restaurants and bars need to stop. NBC10's Monique Braxton went looking for answers.
Rubbing alcohol with caramel coloring and “river water” were guised as premium liquor drinks at some New Jersey bars and restaurants.
Those are some examples of what state regulators found after testing drinks during a year-long investigation into alleged liquor substitution at drinking spots across the Garden State.
Code-named “Operation Swill,” the investigation found nearly three dozen drinking holes in New Jersey were filling premium liquor bottles with lesser-quality spirits or no liquor at all.
One example was described as dirty water -- called “river water" by officials.
“It wasn’t just water, it was dirty water," New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said.
Chiesa detailed the findings of "Operation Swill" at at press conference in Trenton, N.J. Thursday morning.
“Our investigation indicates these 29 establishments were allegedly engaging in a scheme to allegedly fool the customer and increase profits,” Chiesa said.
Carried out by the New Jersey AG Office’s Division of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), agents visited 63 locations around New Jersey in January and February.
ABC Director Michael Halfacre said investigators covertly collected 150 samples from the spots. The samples were taken from "neat" drinks -- meaning they did not have ice or mixers in them.
Halfacre said the samples were then tested by the division using a new rapid testing system called the True Spirit Authenticator.
“We believe this is the first time this technology has been used to this extent in the United States,” Halfacre said. The director characterized the system as a “field sobriety test” for determining liquor types.
The failing results -- 30 in all -- were then sent to 20 premium liquor manufacturers who used gas chromatography to verify they were not the spirits they were purported to be, according to Halfacre.
The brands involved were Finlandia, Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose and Kettle One vodkas; Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Gordon's gins; 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.
In the end, 29 locations were found to have allegedly substituted liquors.
"We reached a point in this case where we were concerned enough about this practice," Chiesa said. "When you think about people going out to dinner...and not getting what they're paying for, it's a problem."
Chiesa says while most of the time, lesser-quality spirits were subbed in, there were a few times when no liquor was used at all.
“They literally just filled it with whatever they had available,” Halfacre said of a sample officials dubbed "river water."
Another sample appeared to be filled with a potentially dangerous substance.
“Another one we believe was rubbing alcohol and caramel color to make it look like it was a whiskey,” Chiesa said. "It's not a healthy situation to have, no it's not designed to consume."
Due to the ongoing investigation, officials said they would not reveal where the non-liquor samples were taken. Chiesa said so far there's no indication anyone has experienced health issues by consuming the drinks containing non-liquor.
On Wednesday, 100 investigators visited each establishment and seized approximately 1,000 bottles of open premium-labeled liquor. Those bottles will be tested again – once by the ABC and also by the manufacturer.
Five funnels were also taken and empty premium liquor bottles were found stashed inside one undisclosed location.
Once those results are returned, state officials say they will decide what action should be taken against the drinking spots.
Halfacre says action will only be taken against the liquor license – by either suspending or revoking the license – not against the bartenders.
Of the 29 accused spots, eight are in South Jersey. They include: Villari’s Lakeside in Gloucester Township, Camden County, Yesterdays just outside Ocean City, NJ in Marmora, Cape May County, Italian Affair in Glassboro, Gloucester County, Bell's Tavern in Lambertville, Hunterdon County, Graziano's Ristorante in Chesilhurst, Camden County and Sunset Tavern in Burlington Township, Burlington County.
Thirteen of the locations were TGI Fridays restaurants. Eleven locations were in North Jersey and two in Central Jersey -- in East Windsor and Hamilton, Mercer County.
Officials said all of the TGI Fridays locations involved in the operation were run by the same franchisee -- The Briad Group.
In a statement, TGI Fridays President Ricky Richardson called the allegations "very disturbing" and said they are working with the franchise owner.
"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," Richardson said.
"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."
There are more than 7,200 bars, restaurants and taverns in New Jersey licensed to sell liquor that can be consumed on the premises, Halfacre said.
Officials said they went after the locations where they either had customer complaints or information from a confidential informant.
"We took the statements that we had and the comments that we had and went after ones we knew we could find something on, or felt we could find something on," Halfacre said.
Officials also say at this point, there is no criminal investigation underway.
Here's a list of all 29 locations: