The Dark 'n' Stormy Showdown of 2009

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

"Should cocktail recipes be legally limited to a particular product or brand?"

In case you thought bibulous brand-battles were limited to Coke vs. Pepsi, take a look at the storm that's brewing regarding the venerable rum drink, the Dark 'n' Stormy.

As Jonathan Miles noted in his New York Times Shaken & Stirred column last month, the Dark 'n' Stormy is made with Gosling's Black Seal rum and ginger beer--that's it. But this level of specificity isn't a case of brand placement. Gosling's filed two trademark certificates that dictate the precise ingredients in a Dark 'n' Stormy, and needless to say, one of those ingredients is the company's signature brand of Bermuda rum.

During an interview with E. Malcolm Gosling, Jr., whose family owns the brand, Miles pointed out that a recent advertisement in Imbibe magazine suggested preparing the drink with Zaya, a brand of rum formerly distilled in Guatemala, now made in Trinidad.

"Now I have to pursue that," was Gosling's response, adding, "they're really just trying to cheat and to capitalize on our investment."

Miles notes that limiting a drink to one specific brand runs counter to typical practice behind the bar, in which bartenders freely alter drink recipes to suit their needs and customers' preferences. "Drinks like this one undergo something like a wiki process: a tweak here, a substitution there, and the drink is reimagined," Miles writes.

On Monday, Zaya responded to Miles' column with a prepared statement that read:

Zaya Rum fully supports Mixology as an artform [sic]. By imposing a trademark or patent on a cocktail recipe one is suggesting to undermine a Mixologists' artistic freedom. We applaud bartenders who put their personal thumbprint on a libation as an integral part of the artform; it's what creates a recipe in the first place.

While it's unclear if the Great Dark 'n' Stormy Showdown of 2009 will ever make it beyond press releases and posturing, it should be noted that legal battles over similar issues have happened in the world of mixology.

During the 1930s, the Bacardi Cocktail--made with lime juice, grenadine and Bacardi rum--became so popular that Bacardi pursued litigation against bars that prepared the drink using other types of rum. Granted, the Bacardi cocktail has the brand as part of the drink name, while the Dark 'n' Stormy does not.

I'll be curious to see how far Gosling's pursues this, and whether they go to the level of involving non-Gosling's pouring bartenders in their case (and if you're one of those who mixes a Dark 'n' Stormy with a good dose of lime juice, as I do, then you may want to call your lawyer). What's your opinion? Should cocktail recipes be legally limited to a particular product or brand? Or is it your drink anyway you like it, even if that calls for straying from the letter of the law?

Related: The Dark 'n' Stormy recipe