Trader Tiki, Painkiller NY Change Names

by Matt Robold on June 10, 2011

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File this under “things people have been talking about a lot for the past two days.”

Both Trader Tiki’s Exotic Syrups and Painkiller NY Tiki Bar have announced name changes this week due to litigation relating to trademarks. Both changes have brought on a great deal of anger from the community (though I’ll admit that the Painkiller story is getting a lot more wind behind it).

Earlier this week Blair Reynolds, owner of Trader Tiki’s Exotic Syrups, announced that the company would be changing its name to B. G. Reynolds’ Exotic Syrups, along with changing their logo from the current Tiki mask to Blair’s own mug topped with his frequently present pith helmet.

In his own announcement, Blair states that the name change is the result of being approached by “the owners of another company of similar name,” but didn’t go into any detail on who, exactly, had threatened him with litigation over the name Trader Tiki. Those of us who know Blair personally have known for some time about this fight.

While Blair won’t name names, it’s fairly obvious that the company behind the threats is none other than Trader Vic’s. I’ve heard from one bartender that an employee of Vic’s went so far as to brag in a Portland bar (where Blair lives and where his syrups have a significant following among bartenders) that the company was suing Trader Tiki out of business.

In the world of patents and trademarks, money does the talking, and Vic’s definitely has more money than a syrup company being run by a man, his wife, and his infant son. In Vic’s defense, they do produce a line of syrups that compete directly with the Trader Tiki B.G. Reynolds brand. In my opinion the quality of the Vic’s syrups is laughable whereas Blair is producing some of the best syrups that you can buy, but trademarks are trademarks.

In the end though, Blair tells me that he is neither bitter nor angry. He is a bit “hurt” that as he tried to honor the tradition of Vic Bergeron he ended up being threatened by the people representing that brand today, but he’s just happy that the syrups are doing well and are so well-loved by bartenders and hobbyists alike.

In fact, you can find B.G. Reynolds’ Handcrafted Exotic Syrups in use in bars all over the Pacific Northwest, and more recently at Trader Sam’s Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel. The Trader Sam’s name is obviously more OK with Trader Vic’s because it’s totally different than Trader Tiki. I’m sure the lack of a major lawsuit has nothing to do with Disney’s Mickey Mouse lawyers being more impressive than Vic’s mickey mouse lawyers.

Later this week the announcement came that Painkiller NY, considered to be THE Tiki destination in New York City (we even used their recipe for the Painkiller at a recent event), had changed its name to PKNY as a result of litigation from Pusser’s Rum.

Pusser’s owns the trademark for Painkiller as it applies to a cocktail mix and has been none-to-shy about throwing its weight around in trying to force bars to make the Painkiller cocktail with their rum alone much in the same way that Gosling’s rum insists that a Dark ‘n’ Stormy can only be made with their rum. Pusser’s does own the trademark for the cocktail, which some find laughable considering the fact that the Painkiller cocktail was created a full decade prior to the existence of Pusser’s as a company (the original recipe called for Mount Gay and Cruzan rums). As a result of the litigation, Painkiller NY – now PKNY – agreed to change the name of their establishment, take down their current website, and even remove their previously eponymous cocktail from their menu.

Once word hit the proverbial street via social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, the proverbial shit proceeded to hit the proverbial fan as the non-proverbial cocktail community raised up in a level of rage that is usually reserved for Star Wars fans finding out that George Lucas is going to re-re-re-remaster his movies again. Twitter was choked with calls to arms to boycott the British Virgian Islands rum brand and to support PKNY. Facebook quickly filled with groups such as Bartenders Against The Trademarking of Cocktails and Bartenders Against Pusser’s Rum. Pusser’s even had to shut down comments on their Facebook page as people flocked there to show their support for PKNY and their disdain for Pusser’s legal maneuver.

The sad thing in the PKNY case is that it just feels like things could have gone down differently. Many bartenders and bloggers are asking why Pusser’s would go so far against a bar that is popularizing their trademarked cocktail so well. I’ve seen tweets and blogs asking why they couldn’t reach an agreement to simply serve Pusser’s in their Painkillers at Painkiller. As of right now, neither the owners of PKNY nor the people at Pusser’s are really talking about the lawsuit, and both are encouraging people to just support their favorite rum or favorite bar by exchanging money for their goods and services rather than rabble-rousing and bottle breaking.

In the end one can’t help but feel that regardless of why, the lawsuit has done far more damage to Pusser’s than good, and probably solidified PKNY’s place among the cocktail cognoscenti as THE place to go in NYC for Tiki-themed drinks (if it wasn’t already).

So what does this all mean?

First off, I have no problem with the existence nor the defending of trademarks. I do find the idea that someone can trademark a cocktail to be somewhat odd, just as I find it odd that a company that should be espousing good Tiki culture and drinks and producing great products of their own would rather sue a small business than produce a better product themselves.

Both of these companies, however, have every right to defend their intellectual property – however misguided their approaches may appear. They will have to live with the consequences of their actions, and they need to realize that the craft cocktail community is tight-knit and does not react well to bullying.

In the end, the inimitable Gary Regan probably has the best outlook for both matters. He stated in a blog post in response to the PKNY kerfuffle:

Let’s put our energy into showing support for PKNY in any way possible. Drink there, eat there, tell punters to go there, anything you can think of to help these guys out and help them pay whatever costs they’ve incurred. The positive energy we create by doing this will spread like wildfire, and instead of spreading hate against the rum company, we’ll be spreading love for PKNY.

So regardless of where you stand, perhaps the best way to show your support isn’t to shout down the other side, but by supporting your favored side with your business.

Question of the Day:

Where do you stand on the PKNY and B.G. Reynolds issues?

{ 12 comments }

Doug Winship June 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Good round up, Dood.

I’d be willing to bet that Pusser’s lawyers were more focused on the bar name than the ingredients in the drink. That said, the Painkiller trademark is an example of the problems with our trademark and copyright office’s tendency to award protection for things that the new owner does not deserve.

Vic’s has a much stronger case, at least in how much they deserve their trademark. As for how much brand confusion is really likely here, I think it’s weak, but Blair would almost certainly have lost had he fought it. I still find it lily that Vic’s will actually suffer more damage from this case than they think… aren’t they just opening a new location in PORTLAND? Talk about poisoning the local good will.

Dave Stolte June 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm

I’m believe this world is big enough for multiple Traders and many kinds of Painkillers. It’s the Dark Side, pure and simple, that’s motivating these litigations.

rowley June 10, 2011 at 3:35 pm

I’ll be in Portland next week. Had every intention of checking out progress on Trader Vic’s. But, then, why would I do that when we have Thatch, Teardrop, and the Monkey Hut in Exile?

Matt Robold June 10, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Doug: Totally agree on both points. I could see Vic’s point, but yes, it was someone associated with the new Vic’s location in Portland that was talking in Teardrop of all places – you know – the bar where Blair does his Tiki nights.

Aaron June 10, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Great post on trademark issues. I came just to find the new name of Painkiller after your stellar recommendation but was surprised to see all the trademark stuff

Jordan June 11, 2011 at 8:42 am

Man, I was really excited about Trader Vic’s setting up shop here in Portland. Now I’m not sure if they’ll be getting any business or recommendations from me. Hassling the home team definitely isn’t going to generate any good will. I really liked that grinning tiki mask.

Darcy O'Neil June 11, 2011 at 12:22 pm

I’d say that Pusser’s was in the weaker position than Trader Vic’s and Pusser’s will suffer more in the long run. Professional bartenders were never, ever fans of Trader Vic’s syrups and most of us had already written off ever using them in numerous blog posts.

Blair will do just fine, he has the support of a very cool community. PKNY will do fine for the same reason.

Nathan June 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Interesting that Painkiller opted to change their name to something with a striking similarity to another well-known consumer trademark. I assume they did their due diligence this time, though.

Drew Campbell June 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm

I had some flippant things to say. Then I reconsidered. Some thoughts in no particular order:
1) Gaz is on the money (can I call him Gaz?). Even if it the sentiment is a little “hippie” the end result is people enjoying good drinks.
2) If instead of suing over syrup TV sued people for making a bad/incorrect Mai Tai there’d be more people enjoying good drinks.
3) Despite my rampant cynicism the little guy does sometimes win. See Kernel Records vs. Timberland. Or more recently the whole etsy vs UrbanOufitters thing. (Neither really improve nor cause detriment to drink)
4) Imagine if Harry’s Bar legally stopped bars from making slush-machine “Bellinis.” There’s be more, well y’know.
5) In my head I keep hearing Biggie Smalls saying, “PKNY. PKNY.”

Cheers!

Mike McSorley June 13, 2011 at 4:42 am

Whoever callously proclaimed that “we’re gonna sue that guy out of business” needs to be lynched. Stat.

Brian June 18, 2011 at 5:25 pm

“I’m sure the lack of a major lawsuit has nothing to do with Disney’s Mickey Mouse lawyers being more impressive than Vic’s mickey mouse lawyers.”

Best. Line. Ever.

Capn Jimbo's Rum Project June 21, 2011 at 5:00 am

Dood, great expose. I love the busting of myths and marketing claims, and this article brings needed sunshine and transparency to what amounts to corporate bullying based on the letter of the law. It’s spirits – and the spirit of the law – that matter more to most of us.

The way this bullying seems to occur is that the big guy’s legal department creates a twisted cause of action – that likely would not succeed – but the small guy just doesn’t have the time or resources to get involved in a long and very expensive confrontation, so makes the practical and cost effective decision to, hey, forget it.

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