Last month I wrote about how Tito’s Vodka was the subject of two class action lawsuits alleging that its “handmade” claim was false and deceptive. Now, Maker’s Mark is the target of a nearly identical claim filed on December 5, 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. As alleged in the lawsuit:
Defendant labels the whisky products it manufactures and sells as “Handmade.” However, photos and video footage of Defendant’s manufacturing process show Defendant actually employs mechanized and/or automated processes to manufacture and bottle its whisky, including but not limited to, (1) the process involved in grinding / breaking up the grains; (2) the process involved in mixing the grains with other ingredients, such as yeast and water; (3) the process involved in transferring this mixture into its fermenting location; and, (4) the process involved in bottling the whisky.
Plaintiffs further contend that “’Handmade’ and ‘handcrafted’ are terms that consumers have long associated with higher quality manufacturing and high-end products.” “As a result,” Plaintiffs, allege, Maker’s Mark “induces consumers to purchase, purchase more of, and pay more for its whisky on the basis it is of supposedly of superior quality and workmanship.”
In response, Beam Suntory, parent company of Maker’s Mark, issued a statement asserting that the “claim is without merit; we will defend this case vigorously and we are confident that we will prevail.”
The core issue, aside from whether any legal damages result from the alleged misconduct, is whether reasonable consumers who purchased a Maker’s Mark product would understand the “handmade” claim with respect to whisky as specifically excluding the “mechanized and/or automated processes” alleged in the complaint. In this regard, any production of whisky necessarily involves the use of tools other than hands, including machinery such as column and/or pot stills. So what human involvement is needed to make the finished product “handmade”? This ambiguity, also seen in “natural” claims, is precisely why this lawsuit exists.