MIAMI - Bombay Sapphire, one of the world's most recognizable gins, is distilled with something called "grains of paradise," an ancient spice grown in the tropics of West Africa that gives the liquor warm and peppery overtones.
The gin-and-spice combo, however, may be illegal in Florida. On paper anyway.
It turns out that selling liquor infused with grains of paradise is a third-degree felony under an obscure law passed over 150 years ago - during an era when some people believed the spice was a poisonous drug that could morph drinkers into suicidal madmen.
No one is going to jail over selling the spiced gin. But that hasn't stopped a South Florida businessman from filing a class-action lawsuit against Bacardi USA, the company that owns the Bombay brand, and Winn-Dixie Supermarkets, which sells the liquor.
The lawsuit, newly filed in South Florida federal court, alleges that the companies are knowingly selling an "adulterated" liquor in what amounts to "deceptive and unfair trade practices." The spice, according to the lawsuit, is known for its "warming and digestive characteristics," and has been used in traditional medicine to end unwanted pregnancies and erectile dysfunction.
"People are consuming it unaware of its potential side effects," said Miami attorney Roniel Rodriguez, who represents the plaintiff, Urri Marrache.
In a statement to the Miami Herald, Bacardi defended the safety of the gin, saying it complies with "all relevant environment, health and safety laws and regulations."
The company pointed out that Bombay's label has long listed grains of paradise, along with nine other "botanicals": almonds, juniper berries and lemon peel, among others. "Although based on a 1761 recipe, Bombay Sapphire has never made a secret of its 10 botanicals. They are each proudly named and beautifully illustrated on the sides of the distinctive blue bottle," the company said.
If you've never head of grains of paradise, you're not alone.
In West Africa, it's common in cooking, but isn't well-known in the United States, even though it's completely legal to own and use in cuisine. The spice, which is related to ginger, can be purchased online or at specialty stores. One online retailer, the Spice House, calls grains of paradise "sweet-spicy but buttery, with a hint of lavender and juniper."
The grains of paradise spice has increased in popularity as consumers become more health conscious.
It's featured in dietary supplements such as Metaburn, by Arizona-based Plexus Worldwide, which claims it promotes weight loss and increased metabolism.
Michael Hartman, the company's director of research and development, said Plexus Worldwide is planning clinical research to gauge the positive effects of grains of paradise. The proposed test has been registered with the federal government, with George Mason University signed on to help.
Hartman said the company believes grains of paradise is completely safe.
"It's something that is part of the food supply in parts of the world," Hartman said.
So why exactly did some people of the past century believe grains of paradise was harmful?
It stems from England in the 1700s, when the government began encouraging people to distill their own spirits as a way to raise tax revenue. That lead to a boom in shoddy home distilleries, which used poor quality, rotting grains and dirty water from the River Thames, said Olivier Ward, a British gin expert and consultant.
The distillers watered down the gin to stretch the product, but added dangerous substances such as turpentine, plus benign spices such as cayenne pepper and, yes, grains of paradise to "mask the awful distilling and make more money," Ward said.
During the so-called Gin Craze, drinkers began dropping dead or going mad after binging on the relatively new and often dangerous liquor. "The Gin Craze was very similar to the crack epidemic," Ward said.
In an effort to make alcohol safer, King George III responded by banning an array of substances, including grains of paradise, from the production of liquor. People began to think of the spice as dangerous. Throughout the 1800s, pub keepers in England were regularly charged and fined for infusing their beer with grains of paradise. Newspaper articles called the spice "vile," "poisonous" and "exceedingly intoxicating."
The ban was eventually lifted, but the idea that grains of paradise was harmful persisted across the Atlantic Ocean.
The roots of the ban in Florida stem from the Civil War, when the Union blockade led to a shortage of liquor. As they had in England the century prior, sellers watered down liquor with sulfuric acid (known then as vitriol), lead acetate, and acid distilled from laurel leaves.
After the war, lawmakers saw banning grains of paradise from liquor as a public health issue. Florida passed its law on "adulteration of liquor" on Aug. 6, 1868, proclaiming anyone who used grains of paradise "or any other substance, which is poisonous" can be punished by up to three years in prison.
Florida was not alone.
Newspaper archives from across the United States chronicle alarming nuggets about grains of paradise. The Sacramento Bee, in 1873, cited a science journal saying the spice was among "murderous substitutes" being added to beer "with a vast amount of evil."
In 1905, Kentucky's Lexington Herald ran a story entitled: "Adulterated Drinks Cause Crime Wave," penned by a "chemist" who purported to have experienced effects first hand. Grains of paradise added to whiskey or rum, he said, causes a man to get "so happy" that he gives away his money, then is wracked by "violent reaction and despair."
"Grains of Paradise leave behind a trail of suicides," he wrote.
Ward, the writer and liquor consultant who runs the Gin Foundry company, said those fears are misplaced.
Nowadays, he said, gin makers don't just stir it in before bottling to give the liquor bite, like in the olden days. Instead, gins like Bombay include grains of paradise into the distillation process.
"About 10% of the gins made in the world have it as a botanical. It's well-known, well-reported and something used for many years," Ward said. "It gives gin a certain botanical heat. It's similar to pepper, it's just a bit rootier and nuttier."
The lawyer who filed the claim against the liquor company, Rodriguez, says the lawsuit is not about getting money or publicity, but rather public safety.
He and Marrache began researching grains of paradise after they were drinking Bombay, and noticed the spice described on the bottle. Rodriguez said he was surprised to learn that Florida outlaws its use in liquor.
The lawyer acknowledges there are no studies that he's found that show a negative health effect of grains of paradise. But he says there needs to be more research done. For now, he advocates warning labels be put on bottles of Bombay.
"It's important for consumers to know that there are ingredients that may have adverse effects, like spices or nuts," Rodriguez said. "If Bombay would remove the grains of paradise from the gin right now, I would drop the lawsuit."
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