Liquor dispute asks, who has the rights to sin?

February 18, 2012

Apparently, sin is no longer a spiritual matter to be absolved between a soul and its maker.

In fact, one New Orleans-based whiskey producer is claiming special rights to both the word and concept.

According to a recent lawsuit filed against Hood River Distillers - who released a new cinnamon-flavored libation called "SinFire Cinnamon Whisky" this month - the use of the word "sin" and packaging similarities allegedly violate a trademark held by Sazerac Inc.

Sazerac, who owns three distilleries in Kentucky, makes "Fireball Whisky," another cinnamon-flavored alcohol that has been distributed it in the U.S. since 2007.

Hood River Distillers, who asserts to be the largest and oldest importer, producer, bottler and marketer of spirits in the Northwest, has been in business since 1934. HRD currently produces a wide variety of specialty spirits including Pendleton Whisky, Knickers Irish Creme Whisky and Yazi Ginger Vodka.

Like many other spirit manufacturers around the world, HRD has already been venturing into the flavored alcohol beverage market within its product line.

Following development, HRD filed for a U.S. patent and trademark on behalf of its newly created "SinFire Cinnamon Whisky" in August 2011.

Letters from Sazerac attorneys were reportedly exchanged with Hood River Distillers' attorneys in December, resulting in unsuccessful resolution of Sazerac's claims against HRD.

Sazerac then filed a suit against HRD in federal court in Louisville, Ky., after implying in its letters to HRD that "SinFire" is too close in label appearance and name to its "Fireball" brand.

Hood River Distillers CEO Ronald Dodge did not immediately return a call for comment on the case.

Sazerac declined comment based on pending litigation.

When placing the products side by side, comparisons yield the following observations:

The label images are divergent - with "Fireball" sporting a distinct fire-breathing demon and "SinFire" displaying a stylized letter "S" with snake-like appendages above swirling flames. Bottle shapes are distinctly different but labels do share variations of red, black and orange as primary colors.

.Label color similarity is one of the noted complaints by Sazerac.

"Fireball" includes the tag "Tastes like heaven, burns like hell," after the product name. "SinFire" carries a bottle neck label that adds the words "evil spirit" to the packaging.

Sazerac also noted in its complaint that it currently uses the "sin" theme in its marketing promotions, including press packets supplied to reporters and other media.

While courts will certainly be involved in the official ruling on Sazerac's claim against HRD, there are perhaps historical and common-sense precedents to review which may influence the outcome of the case.

Whiskey, from the time of the early pioneers, has always been referred to as "firewater" and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is supported by what are commonly referred to as "sin taxes" levied on the sale of many of these controlled products.

Whether HRD will win the trademark rights to its unique product will be in the hands of a judge or jury - but as they say - the devil's in the details.

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