The impact of counterfeiting on Italian liqueurs

Stuart Fuller

The liqueur industry in Italy is lucrative, and the industry is suffering at the hands of counterfeiters as a result. Counterfeit food and drink is a growing problem worldwide, but for Italian alcohol producers the issue becomes even more complex as their products are protected under intellectual property laws.

‘Grappa’ is in fact a protected name in the European Union, and as such strict criteria must be met in order to brand a drink as ‘Grappa’, instead of an alternative name such as brandy. First and foremost, it must either be produced in Italy, the Italian part of Switzerland or San Marino and must be made from pomace, the grape pulp, seeds and stems leftover from winemaking. With such specific criteria to be met, Grappa producers face the challenge of preventing counterfeiters making rip-offs from alternative ingredients.

Last year alone, 20,000 bottles of fake wine and Grappa – containing pea, rice, prune and sorghum; a grass plant - were seized from a Florence warehouse. The counterfeit goods were labelled for market and restaurant sales, and were therefore in clear breach of EU rules. Despite being made from natural ingredients, consumers could have adverse reactions to these substances.

Reports of counterfeit alcohol pertaining to be a specific label can prevent consumers from purchasing genuine items in the future, if doubts as to their authenticity arise. As genuine Grappa can only be produced in specific Italian areas, retailers selling this liqueur must take greater control over the supply chain if they are to cap the flow of counterfeit goods making their way into the market.

An exception to the rule

Unlike Grappa, Limoncello does not need to meet set criteria in order to be branded ‘Limoncello’. Whilst traditionally it was indeed made in Southern Italy, Limoncello can be produced all over the world, much like many other liqueurs. This however is the problem plaguing Italian Limoncello manufacturers; anyone in the world can make the liqueur and stick a ‘Limoncello’ label on it at a knock-down price, resulting in bargain-hunting consumers looking further afield for this Italian produce.
An underlying issue with Limoncello worldwide is the number of recipes available online which act as a guide to making home-versions of this beloved Italian liqueur, using cheap ingredients such as a bag of lemons sourced from the supermarket. The United States, for example, has seen a rise in commercial producers using California lemons, available year-round, over the traditional Sorrento lemons in Italy. This can lead to a cottage industry for counterfeiting, with bottles being sold locally by at-home ‘manufacturers’, which are falsely labelled as Limoncello but made outside of Italy.

Cracking down on the counterfeit threat

Producers of all Italian liqueurs must safeguard their products and intellectual property from the growing threat of counterfeiting, and most importantly, protect the health of their customers. It is important that alcohol producers proactively educate their customers on how to identify and avoid fake products, as well as any known counterfeit operations they may be exposed to. Some brands have even set up dedicated web pages to help consumers determine whether a product they have bought is a fake and allow them to report where they purchased it.
In order to address the issue of counterfeit alcohol on a larger scale, producers, retailers and the wider food and drinks industry will need to join forces with other brands and industry bodies to pool their resources, influence and intelligence, with the aim of exposing the fakes internationally, and protecting Italian delicacies.

This article first appeared in Giornale dei Distillatori