Two California consumers sued one of Kentucky's best-known distilleries, saying Maker's Mark tries to spike demand and sticker prices by falsely promoting its bourbon as being handmade.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Diego, accused the distillery of deceptive advertising and business practices with its "handmade" promotion on the labels of its bottles, known for their distinctive red-wax seal. The potential class-action suit claims damages exceed $5 million.
A spokesman for Beam Suntory Inc., the parent of Maker's, said the suit was meritless and the company will fight it.
The suit was brought by Safora Nowrouzi and Travis Williams, who purchased Maker's Mark bourbon last month.
"Defendant promotes its whisky as being `handmade' when in fact defendant's whisky is manufactured using mechanized and/or automated processes, which involves little to no human supervision, assistance or involvement," the suit said.
The allegations were backed up by photos and video of the Maker's Mark bourbon-making process, according to the suit filed Friday.
The automated process includes grinding up grains, mixing the grains with other ingredients and bottling the bourbon, it said.
Maker's Mark bourbon is produced at a distillery outside Loretto, Kentucky.
The distillery is being expanded to pump up production to keep pace with demand. Maker's shipped about 1.4 million cases in 2013, up 10.7 percent from the prior year.
Maker's Mark has developed a passionate following among bourbon drinkers. The brand created a backlash last year by saying it was cutting the amount of alcohol in each bottle to stretch its whiskey supplies. Producers quickly scrapped the idea.
Clarkson Hine, a spokesman for Beam Suntory, said Tuesday "we will defend this case vigorously and we are confident that we will prevail." He declined to comment on specifics of the suit, citing company policy.
Williams purchased a bottle of Maker's for $32.99 from a grocery store in San Diego, while Nowrouzi bought a bottle of Maker's for $58.99 from a grocery store in Los Angeles County, the suit said.
They made the purchases "under the false impression that the whisky was of superior quality by virtue of being `Handmade' and thus worth an exponentially higher price as compared to other similar whiskies," the suit said.
Other spirits makers have faced legal challenges over labeling claims. Executives at Templeton Rye said earlier this year they will change labels on bottles of their whiskey to clarify that the beverage is distilled in Indiana, not Iowa.