(USA TODAY) -- On the hunt for cheap booze -- or worse -- investigators fanned out around the state ordering drinks at restaurants and bars. And they found they didn't always get what they asked for - and in one place, they got coloring and rubbing alcohol masquerading as scotch.
On Thursday, state law enforcement authorities detailed Operation Swill, which identified 29 restaurants around New Jersey, s, including a dozen TGI Friday's locations, that were alleged to have filled bottles of premium brand liquor with cheaper brands.
No administrative charges have been filed against the businesses pending the outcome of the still-ongoing investigation, said Michael Halfacre, director of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Penalties could include suspension or revocation of a liquor license.
"This alleged scheme is a dishonest ruse to increase profits and it is a slap in the face to the consumer," state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said in a statement. "Consumers should have the peace of mind of knowing that they will get what they spent their hard-earned money on every single time - no exceptions."
The investigation started after consumers complained about specific locations and a confidential informant, with knowledge of the industry, told authorities. Typically a difficult allegation to prove after the fact, the state had a new tool called a true spirit authenticator.
"There's some people that order consistently over time a certain kind of drink and they know when it's not what they ordered," Chiesa said.
In a statement issued Thursday, Ricky Richardson, president of Friday's USA, reacted to the allegations.
"We consider the alleged actions detailed by the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control to be very disturbing," Richardson said. "If accurate, they would represent a violation of our company's values and our extensive bar and beverage standards which are designed to deliver the highest guest experience in our restaurants.
"We have zero tolerance for actions that undermine the trust of our guests and call into question the reputation we have built up over the past 48 years," Richardson said. The activity alleged by the state is "isolated to one group of franchised restaurants," he added.
Rick Barbrick, president and chief operating officer of The Briad Restaurant Group, the Livingston-based operator of 16 TGI Friday's restaurants in New Jersey, said the allegations are "especially troubling and surprising to us." The company takes "great pride" in the quality of its food and drinks, he said.
"We have already begun our own investigation to learn if any of these allegations are true," Barbrick said in a statement released late Thursday. "If they are, we will take immediate steps to correct any issues that may have led to less than a 100 percent quality experience for our guests."
The company will deploy additional measures, supervision and quality checks, he said.
In January and February, investigators visited 63 establishments in New Jersey, including some selected at random. They asked for their drinks "neat," without ice, water or mixer. But instead of taking a sip, the detectives with the ABC tested 150 samples with the true spirit authenticator to make sure they got the liquor they ordered.
If they didn't, the liquids were sent to the brand manufacturers and tested further.
In one case, investigators found that a bottle was filled with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and caramel color to give the appearance of scotch whiskey, authorities said. Another establishment, which was not identified, also poured dirty water, akin to river water, in a bottle and passed it off as the good stuff, authorities said. Officials said no health issues were reported.
"Typically, the way this scheme happens is they take a lesser-known vodka and fill up the premium vodka, scotch or bourbon with it," Halfacre said. "These couple of egregious examples, they didn't even bother doing that. They literally just filled it with whatever they had available."
On Wednesday, about 100 investigators confiscated about 1,000 open bottles of liquor from the 29 establishments, including vodka brands such as Grey Goose and Ketel One; scotch, such as Johnny Walker Black and Dewar's; and Jose Cuervo Silver and Gold tequila. Those bottles were on the so-called "speed rack," the place where bottles used the most by bar tenders are located.
Five funnels also were confiscated, Halfacre said. The investigators also demanded sales records and interviewed employees.
Now the confiscated alcohol will go through rounds of testing by the ABC and manufacturers.
"We reached a point in this case where we were concerned about about this practice," Chiesa said. "When you think about people going out to dinner, whether it's once a month or twice a month, or going out for whatever the occasion is and not getting what they are paying for, it's a problem."
Halfacre said the operation puts businesses on notice.
"This is the first time this technology has been used to this extent in the United States," Halfacre said. "This is essentially a wake-up call, perhaps, to the less altruistic operators of community, of the industry, that they need to get their act together."
Other establishments targeted in Operation Swill include: Railroad Café, East Rutherford; The Brick House, Wycoff; Sunset Tavern, Burlington; Graziano's Ristorante, Chesilhurst; Villari's Lakeside, Gloucester Township; Yesterdays, Marmora; TGI Friday's, West Orange; Italian Affair, Glassboro; Bells Tavern, Lambertville; TGI Friday's, East Windsor; Brunswick Grove, East Brunswick; TGI Friday's, Old Bridge; TGI Friday's, North Brunswick; TGI Friday's, Piscataway; Murray's, Dover; TGI Friday's, East Hanover; Sona Thirteen, Morristown; Blackthorn Restaurant, Parsippany; Ruby Tuesday, Bridgewater; TGI Friday's, Linden; Applebee's, Kearny; Cucina Calandara, Fairfield; TGI Friday's, Springfield; and TGI Fridays, Clifton.