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Tips to root out cheap booze, bar scams

5:42 AM, May 31, 2013   |    comments
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ASBURY PARK, N.J. - When you were out this past weekend at your favorite bar with a drink in your hand, did you think about Operation Swill?

Last week, state investigators from the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control swept down on 29 bars and restaurants, including a dozen TGI Friday's, and confiscated about 1,000 open liquor bottles. Those establishments were filling premium liquor bottles with cheaper booze, investigators said.

No administrative charges against the businesses have been filed, and the investigation continues. But the news, including details that one eatery poured rubbing alcohol and caramel coloring to simulate scotch and another substituted dirty water for the good stuff, made tongues wag.

So how can you make sure you don't get taken at the bar?

"This is a very tricky thing," said Tod Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports. "This is not the kind of thing, like forewarned is forearmed, that you can do a lot about."

Most people don't have a palate that is so finely trained that it can detect adulterated liquor. Also, people add fruit juice and other mixers to liquor.

"It is hard to tell," Marks said.

Still, you can lessen the odds:

Know the taste of your drink. A vodka like Ketel One has a distinctive taste, and it will not change no matter where it's poured.

If it's different, you have a problem. As state Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa said last week: "There's some people that order consistently over time a certain kind of drink, and they know when it's not what they ordered."

And brand is important to bar and restaurant patrons. According to Technomic, a Chicago-area consulting firm, half of consumers who order a mixed drink or a shot call out the brand nearly every time or every time when they place their order. Of those, 90% also buy it at the store and drink it at home, too.

Smell the cork. "If you are purchasing an expensive bottle of wine, be sure to ask - and you shouldn't have to - that it be opened in front of you," Marks said.

Research the brand, labels and look of the bottle online before you go to the restaurant.

Check the price. Beware of booze significantly cheaper than you expect, Marks said. Pinch pennies and you might end up with rot gut instead of the good stuff.

Avoid the unlicensed. Steer clear of unlicensed bars or shady establishments that may have a questionable reputation. Check review sites on the Internet, such as Yelp.

"If something doesn't pass the sniff test, if you will, you probably shouldn't be going there," Marks said.

Don't accept it. "You can approach it in a nice way with the business directly and say, 'I really don't think this is what I ordered,' " said Melissa Companick, president and chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau in New Jersey.

Of course, a scammer may just pour you another tumbler of cheap booze out of the premium bottle. "Your biggest recourse is just to say, 'I'm not going to pay for that,' " Companick said.

Report it. Last week, New Jersey Alcoholic Beverage Control officials said consumers who suspect a liquor flimflam should call the investigative bureau's hot line at 866-713-8392.

Investigators now have a new tool to help investigate and detect such scams. Operation Swill showed they are willing to use it.

Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, said customers should ask questions and go to establishments with good reputations.

High-quality restaurants have specific rules when it comes to handling food and liquor, she said.

"They operate on repeat business," Halvorsen said. "They are not looking for the one-time customer. They want their customers to come back time and time again."

Suffice to say, the businesses, including a Livingston, N.J., franchisee of TGI Friday's, that were named as part of the ABC's operation have a tough task ahead.

It should start with an apology, Jeanne Achille said. She is founder, president and chief executive officer of the Devon Group, a public relations and marketing firm in Middletown. "The first thing is to 'fess up immediately."

The businesses should make it clear they have taken steps to make sure it won't happen again, she said.

"It's a mess," said John Lonsdorf, the president of R&J Public Relations in Bridgewater, N.J. "Warren Buffett says it takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it."

Lonsdorf said the restaurants must give consumers a reason to return.

"That reason can't be lowering prices or offering deals," he said. "That doesn't fly. That doesn't win back trust."

The whole restaurant industry is affected by the controversy, he said. He suggested an industry-led voluntary inspection of bars and restaurants.

"You welcome the spot inspection," Lonsdorf said. "When a bar is inspected (and passed), it ought to be posted in there that it's passed."

David P. Willis, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

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