Thursday, November 19, 2009

Controversy Brewing in Aroostook County

Aroostook County substance abuse prevention professionals, law enforcement, and Maine’s Attorney General have all been taking some heat from global media sources because of their decision to ban the sale of Fentimans Victorian Lemonade to minors.

There are two reasons why this decision was necessary:
1) Because Fentimans’ products are carbonated through fermentation, they contain a small amount of alcohol (0.5% or less).
2) Fentimans’ products are designed and marketed in such a way as to be considered “imitation liquor.”

Fentimans certainly meets the alcohol content requirements… but what about the imitation liquor charge? Consider the following:
  • A product in the same product line, the Shandy, contains non-alcoholic beer, and another product, the Seville Orange Jigger, refers to a device used for measuring alcohol.
  • Prominent food reviews before the Houlton incident considered Fentimans an adult soda and a good mixer for alcoholic beverages.
It’s disingenuous for Fentimans to now claim that their product is “just a soda.” By suggesting that the alcohol content is the only reason for the “imitation liquor” classification, Fentimans displays not only a misunderstanding of Maine state law, but a complete disregard for how their product marketing and packaging might contribute to making underage drinking acceptable. Perhaps Fentimans should instead be concerned with children in their own country, especially when the UK leads the world in underage drinking and children under 12 regularly get admitted to ER's for alcohol poisoning.

The Fentimans Blog does make a good point: that other companies sell product (IBC root beer in particular) in beer-imitating containers—and that such containers are problematic. However, IBC does not contain alcohol, which exempts it from Maine’s “imitation liquor” statutes. Other products, like kombucha, which do contain a small amount of alcohol from fermentation, aren’t mistakeable for an alcoholic drink, and so are also exempt.

On their site, the Fentimans’ company snarkily makes fun of the folks in the County who are earnestly looking out for the welfare of youth, but we applaud the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition for taking an unpopular stand. Underage drinking is a serious matter, and when kids enjoy pretending to drink they are setting themselves up for some bad habits.


  1. While I whole heartedly support your reason for being - I struggle as to why Fentiman's is being singled out. With regard to the presence of alcohol in our drinks, this occurs naturally through fermentation (just as it does in fruit juice and bread. It is also present as a processing additive in other soft drinks). As to whether Fentiman's is an imitation liquor, by the same reasoning you cite (encouraging use by mixability with alcohol) should you not do likewise with Coca Cola (fancy a Jack Daniels?), Energy Drinks (what about a shot of Vodka?) - both of whom (unlike Fentiman's) agressively market their brands through youth culture. Unlike the majority of soft drinks we don't use additives or preservative. 100% natural beverages that also don't use high fructose corn syrup - or sodium benzoate (that makes kids go hyperactive). OK we make a shandy, and a product that uses the term Jigger (which means good measure - not just of alcohol)but our drinks, which take seven days to make, are priced at levels higher than many alcoholic drinks. Would anyone really pay more to get less of the substance that appears central to why suddenly Fentiman's has become news (for the wrong reasons?). I can understand if you feel we should mind our own business - and that alcohol is more of a problem on our shores than we care to admit. To suggest that Fentiman's alone is responsible (isn't that why there is the furore) could appear from this distance rather "small minded" (which seems at odds with the motivations of your group?). If ever you want to change your name to 22 reasons to talk, I am happy to join the debate. Cheers! Geoff - Director Fentiman's Ltd

  2. Very disappointed that you have chosen not to let me enter the debate, or even make a response to the points I raised which I felt to be fair and balanced. I am left to draw my own conclusions. I wish you well with your crusades....
    Cheers! Geoff -
    (couldn't work out how to give you identity from the options below as I needed to get back to the brewing!)

  3. @Geoff: Thanks so much for your replies, and I'm sorry that I didn't get a chance to approve them until today.

    I think that your product (which looks really delicious, actually) has become a symbol of something that is in the process of being clarified in Maine law. Certainly Fentiman's is not the sole source of the problem.

    You make some excellent points, and I appreciate you taking the time to think about our point of view and to write such thoughtful responses. --Jen