On Painkillers, various and sundry

On June 11, 2011, in bartending, cocktails, by Stephanie

The bartending community is in a bit of a kerfluffle of late. A corporate rum producer, Pusser’s, has sued the NYC Tiki Bar, Painkiller, over their use of the name for both the bar and the appearance of the drink on their menu. The Painkiller is a classic tiki drink, invented in 1971 in the Soggy Dollar Bar in British Virgin Islands by George and Mari Myrick. It was not made with Pusser’s, as at the time of the drink’s invention, Pusser’s didn’t actually exist – the daily tot of rum in the Royal Navy was stopped in 1970, and not being produced anymore (Wikipedia). Their current form, starting in the early 80s,  is actually a re-creation of the rum that was distributed, and not a continuous product.

Copyright law in the US is very clear, you can’t copyright recipes. So instead, Pusser’s obtained a trademark in the US to the drink in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic forms (More on this at Cocktailians). The mark is for the name Painkiller as applied to ‘alcoholic fruit drinks with fruit juices and cream of coconut and coconut juice.’  The Painkiller itself is a variant of the piña colada, with OJ, cinnamon and nutmeg added. Painkiller (the bar) was small, and barely a year old, and they settled, and will no longer be using the name, instead calling themselves PKNY.

Several other blogs have addressed the actual event (Offthepresses, Village Voice), but what interests me the most is the damage that Pusser’s has done to themselves, this quickly. The old adage that ‘any publicity is good publicity’ has become quite untrue in the last decade; restaurants have dropped because of internet ratings, brands have been renamed, etc.

Right now, there are just shy of 500 members of the ‘Bartenders against trademarking cocktails’ group, which was started in response to this event on Thursday. One post asking if people were members of local guilds (USBG, independent, or otherwise) got several dozen responses, with people chiming in from all over the US and a few other countries besides. USBG members from over a dozen different cities waved their virtual hands, including the presidents from Boston and New Mexico. The event of social networking of course means the local is international, now. Not that they really wanted to piss off the market in NYC, of all places.

Now, alcohol manufacturers spend a lot of money on bartenders. I’ve eaten at some of Boston’s best restaurants on the dime of Geikkekan, Beefeater and Combier. Next Monday I’ll be drinking at Eastern Standard on Pernod-Ricard’s tab, and Tuesday specifically on Jameson’s. I have barware and glasses from a good dozen other companies. So what does it mean when, in 3 days, you manage to make 500 bartenders aware of you as a bully who protects a copyright that likely shouldn’t belong to you? A bartender makes dozens of drinks even on a slow night in most places. If a bartender is not happy with you, then unless a person specifically says, ‘with (Brand)’, when they reach for the rum, they’ll grab someone else’s product.

Will it last forever? Of course not. But it does mean for the next couple months, one of the main ways that people get introduced to new brands is going to be limited for them. Coming a few weeks before Tales of the Cocktail, it means that there will be discussion and the brand name will be mentioned unfavourably during  professional panels and at the parties. Next week I’m attending BarSmarts here in Boston. Last year it got about 150 attendees from all over the east coast. BarSmarts is geared to the craft cocktail bartender, and I’m certain that it will get mentioned.

There are vectors of  publicity that are acceptable to piss off. Sometimes a company takes a look at the possibilities and decides that the losses are acceptable. I don’t think that reasoning happened here. There are lots of boycotts that trickle out in a couple months. There are also some that will happily go on forever, but they’re ineffectual because while they’re passionate, they’re small. A boycott by bartenders, which will be passionate and small, has larger consequences; if a bartender serves 100 customers in an evening, then the boycott is effectively spread to all those customers.  Regardless of whether the trademark is defensible (I doubt it would be, in a challenge with someone who had the resources), this was probably not the way Pusser’s wanted to get their name spread among bartenders.


One Response to On Painkillers, various and sundry

  1. Laurie says:

    I never even heard of Pusser’s before, and now my first impression of the company is that they’re first-class jerks. Way to go, Pusser’s!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *