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NJ bars, restaurants accused of passing off cheaper booze

New Jersey liquor officials accused T.G.I Friday's outlets and 16 other bars of filling premium-brand bottles with cheap liquors and selling them full price. Operators of T.G.I Friday's say they are conducting their own investigation.

Nearly 30 New Jersey bars and restaurants have been accused of filling top-shelf liquor bottles with lower-quality hooch, including one establishment that allegedly passed off caramel-colored rubbing alcohol as scotch, state officials said Thursday.

The rotgut roundup, dubbed “Operation Swill,” targeted 29 establishments and involved more than 100 investigators, Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa and Division of Alcohol and Beverage Control Director Michael Halfacre said.

The investigators seized about 1,000 opened bottles of premium liquors like Tanqueray gin, Johnny Walker Black scotch and Smirnoff vodka on Wednesday.

“This alleged scheme is a dishonest ruse to increase profits, and it is a slap in the face to the consumer,” Chiesa said in a news release. “Consumers should have the peace of mind knowing that they will get what they spent their hard-earned money on every single time – no exceptions.”

A customer of the Blackthorn Restaurant in Parsippany, one of the establishments named by authorities, said she thinks she was always served the poison she picked.

“I see them pour it,” Danielle Ferrazzano told NBC New York. “There’s my Captain and Coke, whatever it is I drink. I was fine with it. I never suspected anything.”

“Operation Swill” began after the state began receiving an influx of complaints about beverages that might have been mislabeled, Halfacre said, and got a boost when an informant with industry knowledge came forward in the fall.

AP Photo / Julio Cortez

Funnels confiscated during an investigation dubbed "Operation Swill," in which 29 bars and restaurants in New Jersey are accused of putting cheap booze in premium brand liquor bottles and selling it, are seen during a news conference, Thursday, May 23, 2013, in Trenton, N.J.

Investigators took covert drink samples from the establishments in the course of the year-long probe, which included 13 TGI Friday's restaurants, authorities said.

The accusations were “isolated to one group of franchised restaurants,” TGI Friday's corporate offices 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,” the company said in a statement. “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.”

The president of the Briad Group, which operates the 13 TGI Friday's franchises, called the allegations “troubling and surprising.”

“We have already begun our own investigation to learn if any of these allegations are true. 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,” Briad president Rick Barbrick said in a statement, according to the Star-Ledger.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.