Liquor sold as top shelf at dozens of bars was bottom basement: NJ att’y general

Posted at 10:05 PM, May 23, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-24 00:01:39-04

TRENTON, NJ (PIX11) – When a customer orders a drink at a bar and requests top shelf alcohol, they expect to receive what they order.  That’s not what they got at nearly 30 restaurant bars across New Jersey, according to the Garden State’s director of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

“Some samples came back so egregiously off what they were supposed to be that we call it river water,” said A.B.C. Director Michael Halfacre about samples taken from bottles of alcohol at 29 eateries statewide.  “It was just dirty water.”

The director of the A.B.C. and New Jersey’s attorney general on Thursday released the results of a yearlong investigation dubbed Operation Swill.  As Halfacre pointed out, the eateries are accused of funneling some bargain basement alcohol into top-label bottles.  In one case, the alcohol was very bargain basement.

“There was one scotch,” said the A.B.C. director, “we believe to be rubbing alcohol and caramel color.”

Of the 29 restaurants busted, a dozen of them were TGI Fridays.  They are all owned by the Briad Group of restaurants, which did not return a call from PIX11 News for comment.

Most of the other restaurants were local, independent eateries that serve alcohol, including the Railroad Cafe in East Rutherford.  Nobody there responded to PIX11’s inquiries either.

However, about a half mile from the cafe, there was an angry reaction at one of New Jersey’s thousands of restaurants that abide by the rules of their liquor licenses.

“You’re getting charged ten dollars for something that should be five,” said Jennifer Sanchez.  She’s a bartender at the Candlewyck Diner in East Rutherford, which has a strong reputation and good standing with state regulators.  “They’re literally robbing you,” Sanchez said.  “They’re taking money out of your pocket.

The owner of the Candlewyck Diner, Vasilia Logothetis, said that the wool couldn’t be pulled over her eyes.  “I would have known,” she told PIX11 News.  “It’s not like I drink hard liquor every day… but somebody knew, and good for them.”


“There was one scotch,” said the A.B.C. director, “we believe to be rubbing alcohol and caramel color.”

In fact, the Operation Swill investigation began when a bar patron could tell that the liquor he’d asked for was not the one he’d been served, according to Halfacre.  The customer reported it, and that led to investigators getting involved, and a confidential informant coming forward.

Ultimately, investigators seized more than 1,000 open bottles from the restaurant bars they had targeted.  Even though no charges have yet been filed, state regulators expect the alleged misdeeds of those eateries to lead to serious fines.

New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa compared the illegal practices to price gouging at gas stations or other retailers.  “If you made $100 – $200 in price gouging,” Chiesa told PIX11 News, “but you’re fined $20,000, you’re going to want to think twice about taking that step.”

Some of the seized bottles have been tested, but more testing is scheduled.  The labels on the open, seized bottles were:

Vodka: Finlandia, Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose, Ketel One
Gin: Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Gordon’s
Rum: Bacardi Light, Bacardi Dark, Captain Morgan Spiced
Scotch: Johnny Walker Black, Dewar’s
Whiskey: Jack Daniel’s Black Label, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark
Tequila: Jose Cuervo Silver, Jose Cuervo Gold, Patron Silver

The restaurants under investigation are:

  • Railroad Café, East Rutherford
  • The Brick House, Wycoff
  • Sunset Tavern, Burlington
  • Graziano’s Ristorante, Chesilhurst
  • Villari’s Lakeside, Gloucester Township
  • Yesterdays, Marmora
  • TGI Fridays, West Orange
  • Italian Affair, Glassboro
  • Bells Tavern, Lambertville
  • TGI Fridays, East Windsor
  • Brunswick Grove, East Brunswick
  • TGI Fridays, Old Bridge
  • TGI Fridays, North Brunswick
  • TGI Fridays, Piscataway
  • TGI Fridays, Freehold
  • TGI Fridays, Marlboro
  • TGI Fridays, Hazlet
  • Murray’s, Dover
  • TGI Fridays, East Hanover
  • Sona Thirteen, Morristown
  • Blackthorn Restaurant, Parsippany
  • Ruby Tuesday, Bridgewater
  • TGI Fridays, Linden
  • Café 34, Matawan
  • Applebee’s, Kearny
  • Cucina Calandara, Fairfield
  • TGI Fridays, Hamilton
  • TGI Fridays, Springfield
  • TGI Fridays, Clifton