The Lessons of Operation Swill: Six Ways to Tell Your Bar Is Passing Off Cheap Liquor as the Good Stuff

A bar manager takes inventory.

Photo by David L Ryan-Pool/Getty Images

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On Wednesday, the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control raided 29 New Jersey bars and restaurants as part of Operation Swill, a year-long sting operation that caught these establishments allegedly pouring bottom-shelf liquor into top-shelf bottles and selling it to customers as the real deal. Sometimes, the fraud was a bit more blatant. “In one instance, a bar in New Jersey mixed rubbing alcohol with caramel food coloring and served it as scotch,” writes Brent Johnson in the Star-Ledger.* “In another, a bar filled an empty liquor bottle with dirty water and passed it off as liquor.” New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa called the whole thing “a slap in the face of the consumer. The consumer should have the peace of mind to know that when they pay for something, they get exactly what they paid for, no exceptions.”

As an enthusiastic and frequent liquor drinker, this news struck fear into my pickled heart. When I order a drink, I want to know that I’m being served drinking alcohol, not rubbing alcohol. (As Attorney General Chiesa said: “I wouldn’t drink rubbing alcohol in my house. It serves a very specific purpose: to rub.”) If the bait-and-switch is happening in New Jersey, it’s happening elsewhere, too, quite possibly in the low joints where I spend an alarming amount of my time. Is there any hope? Here are six ways to tell whether your local bar might be cheating you out of a name-brand drink.

Use your senses. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between top-shelf liquors and marginal brands. What’s the difference between Grey Goose vodka and Stoli? Marketing, mostly. But other times there’s a real difference, and you can usually tell by using your senses. For example, taste. Ask the bartender for a sip of that Dewar’s before he dilutes it with soda. It if tastes unnaturally harsh, it might be a fake. Other senses can come in handy, too. Do the colors look weird? Does it smell like paint thinner? If you put your ear up to the glass, does the liquor whisper, “I’m a fake!” That last one usually means that you are really drunk, not that the liquor is fraudulent, but you never know.

Look for context clues. If a bar is cutting corners with the liquor it serves, it is probably cutting corners elsewhere, too. Be alert for signs of managerial cheapness. Does the bar use those not-actually-a-pint pint glasses for draft beer? Is its sign hand-written, or printed on cheap plastic? Instead of toilet paper, do they offer coarse paper towels? Cost-cutting is never an isolated incident.

Listen to your hangover. There are many types of hangovers: the “mixing beer with liquor” hangover; the “21st birthday” hangover; the “Wow, I must be getting old” hangover. Worst of all is the “this shouldn’t be happening” hangover, the sort that hits you even though your drinking shouldn’t have triggered it. All other things being equal, cheap liquor is more likely to give you a hangover than the good stuff. Ordered like a plutocrat but your head hurts like a drowned rat? Friend, you may have been swindled.

Befriend a scientist. The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control verified its suspicions by testing the cheap liquor with a device called, wonderfully, the True Spirit Authenticator. If you want to test your liquor for purity, this is the way to go. Unfortunately, these machines are hard to find. But you know who could probably find one? Your pals Steve and Hillary down at the old science laboratory. Make friends with scientists, then take advantage of your friendship by forcing them to analyze suspicious liquors for you.

Stay away from TGI Fridays. Thirteen of the 29 establishments caught up in Operation Swill were TGI Fridays restaurants operated by a New Jersey hospitality company. (The Star-Ledger reports that Fridays “is looking into the matter.”) That makes me wonder what else isn’t as it seems at Fridays. Is their pecan-crusted chicken salad actually crusted with cashews? Do they not actually like Friday as much as they say?

Watch out for suspicious inter-bottle pouring. Does your friendly local bartender have an odd habit of pouring the contents of one bottle into another, emptier bottle? There are plenty of good explanations for this, I’m sure. (Everyone’s got to have a hobby.) But, if this is happening to you, you should scratch your chin, press your finger to temple, and think long and hard before you inevitably cave in and order another.

*Correction, May 24, 2013: This post originally misidentified the Newark Star-Ledger reporter who wrote the linked story on Operation Swill. He is Brent Johnson, not Brad Johnson. The relevant sentence has been corrected.

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