A 150-year-old Florida law that prohibits the addition of a common spice to liquor is at the center of a lawsuit against the maker of a popular gin.
The class-action lawsuit against Bacardi, which owns Bombay Sapphire, claims the liquor giant adds "grains of paradise"—a spice banned under an archaic Florida law—to its bestselling gin. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami this past summer and the subject of a lengthy piece in the Miami Herald this week, also names Winn-Dixie, a Florida-based grocery chain that sells Bombay Sapphire, as a defendant.
The Florida law, § 562.455, declares that "[w]hoever adulterates, for the purpose of sale, any liquor, used or intended for drink, with… grains of paradise… or any other substance which is poisonous or injurious to health, and whoever knowingly sells any liquor so adulterated, shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree."
That's comparable in severity to armed trespassing. Those found guilty of a third-degree felony in Florida face up to five years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.
To be fair, the law isn't entirely ridiculous. Some of the substances the law prohibits from being added to liquor are harmful, including laurel water.
But grains of paradise aren't harmful. They're a spice that The Kitchn, a food website, has touted as "The Best Spice You've Never Heard Of." The West African spice is a type of ginger that's related closely to cardamom. The Kitchn notes that it resembles peppercorns and has an aroma and flavor that is "a heady combination of black pepper, cardamom, lemon zest, and something warm and woodsy."
That sounds quite pleasant to me. Less so to attorney Roniel Rodriguez, who represents plaintiff Uri Marrache. "People are consuming [Bombay Sapphire] unaware of its potential side effects," Rodriguez told the Herald.
But Marrache's suit doesn't allege Bacardi or Winn-Dixie caused him (or any other potential class member) any specific physical harms or side effects. Indeed, Rodriguez, the Herald reports, "acknowledges there are no studies that he's found that show a negative health effect of grains of paradise." The alleged damage described in the lawsuit resides instead entirely in the "individual purchase price" paid by consumers—"generally less than $40."
The Florida law, the Herald reports, was adopted after the Civil War "during an era when some people believed the spice [grains of paradise] was a poisonous drug that could morph drinkers into suicidal madmen." Some such people were wrong. Others were clearly liars.
"In 1905, Kentucky's Lexington Herald ran a story entitled: 'Adulterated Drinks Cause Crime Wave,' penned by a 'chemist who purported to have experienced effects first hand," this week's Herald report details. "Grains of paradise added to whiskey or rum, he said, causes a man to get 'so happy' that he gives away his money, then is wracked by 'violent reaction and despair.'" The unnamed chemist, probably wracked by guilt at having given away his money after a particularly herbaceous whiskey or rum bender, also blamed grains of paradise for "a trail of suicides."
Baseless, hysterical hyperbole of this sort certainly sounds familiar. As I detailed in a 2012 law-review article, France once banned eating potatoes, citing "the spud's purported ability to cause 'not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scrofula, early death, sterility, and rampant sexuality.'" (Not necessarily in that order.)
The present lawsuit claims grains of paradise is known for its "warming" effect and is "used in other parts of the world for medicinal purposes," including as an abortifacient. "Not surprisingly," the lawsuit then declares, "adulterating alcohol with grains of paradise is illegal in Florida."
Please. Gin is itself both warming and used in other parts of the world for medicinal purposes. (Not surprisingly, gin is legal in Florida.)
That's one reason this Florida law—at least as it pertains to grains of paradise—is particularly absurd. Another reason: An 1873 legal-medical text, The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence by Alfred Swaine Taylor, debunked any link between grains of paradise and abortion or any other purported harm. "Grains of Paradise is popularly considered to be highly noxious; but there are no facts to justify this view," reads the text, published around the same time Florida adopted its ban. "This kind of pepper is properly regarded as an aromatic condiment."
What's next for the present gin lawsuit? Even if the District Court doesn't dismiss the plaintiff's case, serious questions exist about whether or not Bacardi and Winn-Dixie are even in violation of the Florida law. For one thing, as the legal news site JD Supra notes, the federal government permits the addition of grains of paradise to food (including alcohol beverages). And then there's the question of whether alcohol may be adulterated in the fashion the suit alleges.
"These botanicals, which apparently include grains of paradise, are, however, vapor infused into the gin during the distillation process; they never come into physical contact with the liquid spirit," reports LexBlog, another legal news site. "This raises the question of what constitutes 'adulteration'" under the law.
For his part, Rodriguez says he's willing to drop the lawsuit, presumably with his client's blessing. (Rodriguez did not respond to my emailed request for comment.) "If Bombay would remove the grains of paradise from the gin right now, I would drop the lawsuit," Rodriguez told the Herald.
Better still, Florida lawmakers should remove any reference to grains of paradise from the law. Presumably, that would both neuter the lawsuit and ensure Bombay Sapphire continues to be available to Florida consumers looking for a little taste of paradise.