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'Operation Swill' Uncovers NJ Restaurants that Served Rubbing Alcohol, Dirty Water in Place of Premium Liquor

Update Date: May 24, 2013 01:24 PM EDT

A year-long investigation called Operation Swill has uncovered at least 29 establishments that served to customers what they thought was top-shelf liquor, but was not. In most cases, the substitute was a lesser-known, cheaper alcohol that was served in place of premium vodka, whiskey or rum in an effort to cut costs. In other cases, bartenders would serve up liquor with whatever they had on hand. That meant, in one particularly startling example, dirty water; at another establishment, they served rubbing alcohol dyed with caramel-tinted food coloring in place of scotch.

"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."

Drinking rubbing alcohol, which is 70 percent isopropanol, can have fatal effects. For most adults, it would likely cause symptoms like drunkenness, such as euphoria, vomiting and slurred speech, according to Drinking approximately eight ounces puts people in an unsafe zone, potentially leading to coma, internal bleeding and death.

Drinking unclean water is also unsafe. As UNICEF reports, drinking unclean water could potentially put a person at risk for many dangerous conditions like cholera, typhoid and parasitic worms.

According to the Asbury Park Press, the investigation started with some consumers complained to authorities about certain restaurants. Because it is a difficult charge to prove, officials could do very little about the allegations. Then a confidential informant with knowledge of the industry became involved, and a new instrument - the True Spirit Authenticator - became available, allowing investigators to test alcohol quickly and cheaply.

The Star-Ledger reports that investigators entered 63 establishments and ordered top-shelf liquor, neat, no mixer, no ice. They covertly tested the beverages with the instrument, then followed up their findings by sending samples to the brand's manufacturers. In the end, officials seized 1,000 bottles of gin, rum, scotch, tequila, whiskey and vodka. No charges have been filed, though establishments that have been found to have performed a bait and switch will be. Officials take action against the liquor licensee, not the bartender. More raids are possible at the 7,200 establishments with liquor licenses across the state.

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