Trademarking cocktails

Words by Difford's Guide

Trademarking cocktails image 1

Trademarking cocktails is contentious. Are you trademarking the name, the recipe, or both? Are you in breach of a trademark when you make a drink with the same name but a different product? And who polices this realm of intellectual property?

For all the thousands of cocktails in existence, here are just a handful that are trademarked. They include the Dark 'N Stormy (note the single apostrophe - more on this later), the Painkiller, the Sazerac and the Hand Grenade .

The Dark 'N Stormy (Gosling's Black Seal Rum, ginger beer and lime) is owned by Gosling's rum , the Painkiller (Pusser's rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut, orange juice and fresh nutmeg) is owned by Pusser's Rum ; the Sazerac (Sazerac Rye Whiskey, Peychaud's Bitters, sugar and Herbsaint) by Sazerac Company ; and the Hand Grenade (a secret recipe that combines a mix of spirits with melon liqueur) by New Orleans bar group 721 Bourbon - if you've been to Bourbon Street you've probably seen a few of these bad boys).

The crucial detail about trademarking cocktails is that it is the name of the drink that is protected under law but only for certain specified categories, and not its ingredients. You can mix as many brands of dark rum as you like with ginger beer and lime, but if you insist on still calling it a Dark 'N Stormy, then you could be in breach of trademark. This is certainly the case if you bottle this combination of ingredients and sell the product you have created as a Dark 'N Stormy. Indeed, you are in breach of Gosling's trademark if you sell any drink product branded a Dark 'N Stormy, regardless of what ingredients you use.

That's not the only criteria that should be considered by budding trademark enthusiasts. A cocktail name cannot be merely descriptive of ingredients, so you'd be laughed out of court if you attempted to register the humble Vodka Soda, for example.

What's in a name?

Nor can you register a cocktail name as a place where you'd expect to be served a drink. A Soho Soda as a name for a Vodka Soda most likely wouldn't fly. "But a Ben Nevis Soda might be OK - after all, who expects to be served a Vodka Soda on top of a Scottish mountain?" says Joanna Frears, Head of Intellectual Property for licensing legal experts Jeffrey Green Russell.

The fact that there are so few trademarked cocktails is a sign of how complicated and convoluted this sphere of intellectual property is, and suggests that the process is not worth the time - or is considered unenforceable - by even the wealthiest of drinks companies.

There has to be a good reason to trademark something - whether it's tradition or something else unique. In the case of Gosling's, its trademark builds on the millions of dollars it has spent in promoting and advertising the Dark 'N Stormy serve, and the objective that other rum companies do not benefit from its investment.

Gosling's first trademarked the Dark 'N Stormy in the late 1970s. Over the decades it had unofficially become "the national drink of Bermuda", and was always traditionally made with Gosling's Black Seal. But when other rum companies began promoting the serve abroad, in North America and Western Europe, Bermuda's oldest company (Gosling's had operated there since 1806) sought to protect its commercial interests and moved to register the name.

"We started trademarking the name in Bermuda at first, and then we went global," says Gosling's CEO E. Malcolm Gosling, "but it was a slow build and the budget was tiny." Without the financial backing of a global drinks company, Gosling's went for the obvious places: most Western European countries, the Caribbean, America and Asia.

Territory dependent

Its example reveals a further, elemental fact about trademarks: they are valid only in particular geographies. (In what Gosling's now describes as an "administrative faux pas" it missed Australia, and the Dark 'N Stormy name there is now owned by local rum producer Bunderburg.) And that fact makes the process of trademarking an extremely bureaucratic, logistical and legal nightmare most companies would not want to stomach. (For the record, the relevant authorities are the United States Patent and Trademark Office for America and The Intellectual Property Office in the UK. The European Union usefully has a community trademark that can be applied to all member states - the caveat being if a name fails in one state then it fails in them all.)

Constantly defended

Nor is establishing a trademark a one-time event. Instead, trademarks must be both demonstrably protected by their owners, taking timely action against those that infringe them, and must be continuously renewed according to the legal framework of the countries they are registered in, with ten years being a typical length of validity. Staying up to date on both fronts comes with predictably hefty legal costs.

At risk is the potential for a trademark to become an everyday descriptive phrase and therefore legally unenforceable. Joanne cites famous examples - including hoover, the aspirin and escalator - that show the consequences of ignoring this. These terms have become generic.

Trademarked cocktails in bars

But how to police the cocktail world? What about a bar that's got a Dark 'N Stormy on the menu, only not with Gosling's? Here, the company doesn't send in an army of lawyers but focuses on talking and education to correct an error that's typically been born from ignorance, not malice. "Trademarking the name confused people that we're trying to control mixing rum and ginger beer," says Malcolm. "We're not doing that. Only when you call it a Dark 'N Stormy."

Gosling's certainly has a moral right to expect bartenders mixing a Dark 'N Stormy cocktail to use their Black Seal rum. After all, it's mainly due to the time and money the brand has invested in marketing over years that has led to the customer ordering a Dark and Stormy in the first place. But while Gosling's undeniably has a moral right, it is debatable whether or not they have a legal right to force bars to use their rum in a Dark and Stormy cocktail.

For Gosling's, the gloves come off if a rival company stands to gain commercially, particularly if advertising and active promotion of its own Dark 'N Stormy is on the agenda. "We defend our brand very harshly," says Malcolm. Gosling's had a public spat in 2009 with Zaya Rum over its promotion of a Dark And Stormy Cocktail.

And it's not enough just to vary the name, says Joanne Frears. Changing the punctuation or subtly changing the spelling doesn't sidestep a trademark. "Don't even think about it," says Joanne. "The test for this is confusion in the marketplace - just because a punctuation mark has shifted it doesn't make the trademark redundant."

Painkiller example

Similarly, Pusser's assertively protected its Painkiller name, which it trademarked in the US and the UK in 2003, when it controversially forced a bar to change its name in 2010. Lower East Side tiki bar Painkiller was forced to rename itself - and relinquish its accompanying web domain - as PKNY following a cease and desist notice and a lawsuit. Sadly, the bar did not survive the legal wrangle. Crucially, Pusser's had registered the Painkiller name not only under one trademark category - 'alcoholic beverages' - but as many as possible, including 'restaurant and bar services'. Pusser's may not have been able to force the bar to use its rum in a Painkiller cocktail but it certainly had, and still has, the right to prevent anybody else in the USA naming a bar Painkiller.


With the benefit of hindsight, would Gosling's Malcolm commit to the time and expense that trademarking the Dark 'N Stormy has cost the company? His answer is rather more emphatic than the usual fence-sitting answer of 'yes and no' and provides useful guidance to other companies considering such a move. "Would I do it again? Yes ...and absolutely not. Yes, because when we first started to export our dark rum it was a worthwhile tool to allow us to offer something unique. And absolutely not: a trademark takes a huge financial investment to protect it."

Fact is, most cocktails survive without being trademarked, with brand owners happy to rely on the power of their brand ambassadors, repetition of published cocktail recipes and word-of-mouth to establish convention around making mixed drinks. Bacardi, for example, has not trademarked the Cuba Libre, even though it ceaselessly promotes its rum as a pre-requisite in the drink. Nor is the Bacardi Cocktail trademarked - it is instead protected under 'passing off' law.

As for the Hand Grenade, we're not aware of anyone attempting to pass their own version off as the real thing...

Remember, it's the name, not the recipe that's trademarked.

Join the Discussion

... comment(s) for Trademarking cocktails

You must log in to your account to make a comment.

Report comment

You must be logged in to upvote or downvote a comment

Click here to login