A Florida federal court has dismissed a lawsuit alleging that Beam Suntory Inc. and Maker’s Mark Distillery falsely label their Maker’s Mark® bourbon as “handmade” because they manufacture the product using a mechanized process. Salters v. Beam Suntory, Inc., No. 14-659 (N.D. Fla., Tallahassee Div., order entered May 1, 2015). The plaintiffs “have been unable to articulate a consistent, plausible explanation of what they understood ‘handmade’ to mean in this context. This is understandable; nobody could believe a bourbon marketed this widely at this volume is made entirely or predominantly by hand,” the court said.
The court first found that the process of making Maker’s Mark® bourbon is handmade in the original sense of the word because it is “distinguished from the work of nature,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary definition. “In that sense all bourbon is handmade; bourbon, unlike coffee or orange juice, cannot be grown in the wild.” The court then acknowledged that the modern definition has evolved to mean “made by hand,” but “the term obviously cannot be used literally to describe bourbon,” the court said. “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 plaintiffs’ other perceptions of “handmade,” the court found, accurately described the production process of Maker’s Mark®; the bourbon is made “from scratch and in small units” of no more than 19 barrels. The spirits company also asserted that the product is closely monitored by humans during the process, meeting the plaintiff’s definition of requiring “close attention by a human being.” The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that “handmade” meant without the use of machines, because they “suggest that ‘handmade’ means made with only some kinds of machines, not others. Thus the plaintiffs suggest the defendants use machines that are too big or too modern. One might wonder who benefits from small or old machines, but leaving that aside, it is hard to take from the word ‘handmade’ a representation about the age, or even the size, of equipment used in that process.”
The court also dismissed the plaintiffs’ assertion that the “handmade” claim was only meant to capitalize on the current uptick in craft beer sales. “One might question how the defendants knew when they adopted this term decades ago that this trend was coming. . . . But leaving this aside, a general, undefined statement that connotes greater value, detached from any factual representation, is not actionable. One might as easily label a bourbon ‘smooth’ or say it is made with the same skill and care as has been used for decades.” Accordingly, the court dismissed the complaint with prejudice.
Details about a putative class action alleging similar claims in California federal court appear in Issue 548 of this Update.