Last Friday, in the case of Welk v. Beam Suntory Import Co., a federal judge in California dismissed a class action lawsuit against Jim Beam in connection to the claim that the use of the term “handcrafted” on the label’s bourbons was misleading. In other words, the plaintiffs claimed that they were duped into buying bourbon they believed was made by hand, when the bourbon was actually made by machines. The court found that the term “handcrafted” is just puffery – which in the legal world means exaggeration or embellishment but not a misrepresentation.
The standard in a false advertising case like this one is whether or not a reasonable consumer will be deceived by the label.
There has been a recent trend in the past few years of individuals bringing class action suits against distilleries and other alcohol manufacturers alleging that they are misleading drinkers by calling their products “handmade” or “handcrafted.” This is the third case to be dismissed.
The first case to be dismissed, on May 1, 2015, was Salters v. Beam Suntory, Inc., where the same allegations of misleading drinkers was brought in a federal court in Florida about Maker’s Mark, another bourbon produced by Beam Suntory. There, the judge did not mince words and found that the term “handmade” “obviously cannot be used literally to describe bourbon. One can knit a sweater by hand, but one cannot make bourbon by hand. Or at least, one cannot make bourbon by hand at the volume required for a nationally marketed brand like Maker’s Mark. No reasonable consumer could believe otherwise.”
The second case, Nowrouzi v. Maker’s Mark Distillery, in federal court in California and dismissed on July 27, 2015, followed the reasoning of the Salters case.
So, distilleries and alcohol makers can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Not so fast. In March of this year, before these three decisions came out, a federal judge in California refused to dismiss the same allegations brought against Tito’s vodka in Hofmann v. Fifth Generation, Inc. There, the judge found that it was possible for a consumer to think that the vodka was handmade in old-fashioned pot stills and not automated machine stills.
Seriously? When you see the term “handmade” on a bottle of Tito’s vodka, how do you imagine it was made? Certainly not handmade like moonshine is handmade. But is there an expectation that there are some hands involved during the manufacturing process? Would you feel misled if you saw that only machines made the vodka? That’s what the judge in Hofmann wants to determine.
However, if the Tito’s case comes out differently than the Jim Beam / Maker’s Mark cases, and the court finds that consumers were misled, it will cause a real problem in judicial consistency. Plus, who doesn’t love Tito’s and isn’t rooting for them to win? No friend of mine.