Buffalo Trace Distillery faces class action over mysteriously missing words

Marketing Goggles

Bourbon lovers from Missouri, Florida, North Carolina and New York uncorked a number of claims in the Eastern District of Missouri against Buffalo Trace Distillery and related entities. In their January 2017 class action, the plaintiffs, representing bourbon lovers everywhere, accused Buffalo Trace of fiddling with the packaging of its “Old Charter” brand in a misleading way.

According to the plaintiffs, Old Charter misleadingly represented itself as an eight-year-aged bourbon, even though the company stopped aging the product for that length of time sometime in 2014. The misrepresentation was alleged to appear in three separate places on the product label: “on the neck, on its own label on the top of the body, and in the text portion which reads ‘gently matured for eight seasons in century old brick warehouses.’”

Goes Down Rough

The boldest misrepresentation, according to the complaint, was the printing on the neck of the bottle. Previously, the label had read “Aged 8 Years.” Now, it simply reads “8.”

“This deceptive change fails to inform anyone that Defendants’ product is now composed of cheaper and lower-quality bourbon,” the plaintiffs claim. How do they know? A number of testimonials are cited in the action, noting a marked drop in the quality of the bourbon around the time of the label change.

The plaintiffs brought several barrels’ worth of charges, including violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, deceptive acts or practices and false advertising under New York General Business Law, violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act, unjust enrichment, breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation.

The Takeaway

Buffalo Trace moved to dismiss, asserting that no reasonable consumer would believe, simply from the unadorned 8 on the label, that Old Charter is aged for eight years. In February 2018, the district court allowed the central counts to survive.

“The Court cannot conclude as a matter of law and at this stage of the litigation that the packaging is not misleading, particularly in light of Plaintiffs’ allegations that previously, Old Charter was aged 8 years,” the court noted. “Consumers may just as likely have seen the 8, and based on previous purchase, thought the 8 represented the years of aging.” 

Buffalo Trace also asserted that the bourbon lovers brought a prohibited attack on the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau’s original approval of the label and that compliance with federal regulations provided a safe harbor from the charges. The court responded that the deceptive acts in question were broader than the regulated activity, rendering the safe harbor moot.

Other charges, including the Magnuson-Moss claims and implied warranty claims, were denied; the unjust enrichment and fraud charges survived.