HOULTON, Maine — The Maine Attorney General’s Office has ruled that a “botanically brewed beverage” that contains a small amount of alcohol is an imitation liquor and cannot be sold to minors in Maine.
State and local officials confirmed Thursday that Fentimans Victorian Lemonade, a product that contains less than 0.5 percent alcohol, falls under the category of “imitation liquor,” and cannot be sold to anyone under 21 years of age. By contrast, a typical American beer usually contains about 5 percent alcohol.
Officials from the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition (ASAP) and the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse (MAPSA) have maintained that the beverage should be classified as imitation liquor since learning that a Houlton High School student brought a bottle of the lemonade to school several weeks ago.
Fentimans Victorian Lemonade was created in the United Kingdom in 1905 and now is distributed in the United States.
In England, company officials said the brouhaha in Maine is much ado about nothing.
“We see it as slightly absurd,” said Tiffany McKirdy, operations director at Fentimans, a specialty brewer in northern England.
A person would need to drink about 28 bottles of the lemonade to consume the amount of alcohol found in a typical pint of beer, McKirdy said.
Under Maine law, “imitation liquor” means “any product containing less than ½ of 1 percent alcohol by volume which seeks to imitate by appearance, taste and smell of liquor or which is designed to carry the impression to the purchaser that the beverage has an alcohol content.”
Imitation liquor cannot be sold to minors or consumed by minors in Maine. A minor found guilty of consuming imitation liquor faces a fine of between $200 and $400. Any person who violates the law by selling it to a minor commits a civil violation and faces up to a $500 fine.
Kate Simmons, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, said the product and the case were reviewed before a ruling was made.
According to a statement from the North American branch of the company, Fentiman’s products are “botanically brewed beverages,” and products such as the lemonade are “classified as sodas or soft drinks.”
“Naturally fermented, they contain less than 0.5 percent alcohol, so they may be enjoyed by all ages and offered by every retail outlet, restaurant, pub, hotel or … well, anyone,” the statement reads.
While substance abuse prevention and law enforcement officials said Thursday they were pleased with the news, Greg Warwick, the president of Fentimans North America, called the ruling “disappointing.”
ASAP and MAPSA officials requested the state’s ruling last month after they learned about the Houlton High School student bringing a bottle of the lemonade to school.
The student saw the label as he was drinking and realized it said the beverage contained “not more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume.” The student brought it to a teacher. School officials said there was no intent on the student’s part to break any school rules or state laws.
The school principal contacted the Houlton Police Department because he was not sure about the law regarding the sale of such a beverage.
Officials from the ASAP coalition and MAPSA contacted state liquor licensing officials and the state Attorney General’s Office last month to have them define exactly who can sell and who can purchase the product. The groups said the product should not be sold to people under 21 years old. Besides containing a trace amount of alcohol, the product is sold in a container resembling a beer bottle.
Jeff Austin, supervisor of liquor licensing and compliance at the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operation’s Liquor Licensing and Inspection unit, said late Thursday afternoon that he had received the ruling from the Attorney General’s Office.
“We had a meeting today and we will be passing the information on to the public and assume the media will help with that,” he said. “The AG’s Office has decided that it fits into that [imitation liquor] category, so it cannot be sold to minors.”
Austin said stores do not have to pull the product off the shelves, but they cannot sell it to anyone under age 21.
Warwick, the president of Fentimans North America, said the beverage is made by taking ingredients such as ginger, water, sugar and yeast and fermenting it together.
“What we end up with is a product that is a mixture of less than ½ percent alcohol because of the fermentation process,” he said. “The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] has deemed this safe for all ages. There should be no restrictions on the distribution or sale of the product.”
He said that naturally occurring fermentation can leave a similar range of alcohol in beverages such as orange juice and in other products that use natural extracts.
Warwick said Thursday that he had not heard the news firsthand from the Attorney General’s Office but had heard it from several other sources.
“It is disappointing,” he said. “It is a surprise to us because this has been sold in the U.S. since around 2000 and we have never encountered this before. I have contacted the AG’s Office but have not heard back from them as to the reason why they made this decision. We have always abided by the FDA regulations, so this is dis-appointing to say the least.”
Warwick stressed the lemonade product is not marketed as imitation liquor or a nonalcoholic beverage and is not labeled as such. In fact, several Internet sites market it as “brewed soda” or “soda.”
Prices for the 9.3-ounce bottle vary from $2.25 to $3.25.
Warwick said that while the discussion about the issue is “healthy,” the labeling on the product is historical and reflects the way it was presented in the United Kingdom.
“It is a global package,” he said. “This has always been designed and marketed as a soda or soft drink.”
Warwick said he is not sure what the decision will mean for the sale of the product or its labeling in Maine.
“We will have to consider what to do,” he said, saying that he wanted more information from the Attorney General’s Office before moving forward.
Speaking on behalf of MAPSA, Melissa Boyd said Thursday the group was “very happy” with the decision.
Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin also was pleased to hear of the decision. While he acknowledged last week that an individual would have to consume a huge quantity of the drink for it to have any effect, he said the lemonade bottle and its cap may look like one that contains an alcoholic beverage to some people.
Asselin echoed his concern about the message it sent to youth.
“It has always been my belief that it should be classified as an imitation liquor,” he said Thursday. “I appreciate the stand that the ASAP coalition and MAPSA took on this. The bottom line is, we are trying to promote a healthy lifestyle and we do not want products being marketed to youth that might affect their health. I think this was a good decision by the AG’s Office.”
The situation with the drink in Maine has made headlines in the United Kingdom with news outlets debating the situation.
The concerns raised in Maine reflect the prudishness of the devout men and women who left England in search of the new world, said Fentimans managing director Eldon Robson.
“Maine is, of course, where our puritanical forefathers went because Britain was not strict enough, and it has been said that Puritans are people who are always worried that someone, somewhere, might be having fun,” he said, adding that he found the whole flap amusing.
The Bangor Daily News conducted an unscientific poll regarding the matter when the story first broke last week. The survey asked readers if they would allow their child to drink a beverage with less than 0.5 percent alcohol content. According to the results, 80 percent of readers said they would. Many readers pointed out that products such as mouthwash and cough syrup also contain trace amounts of alcohol and are available to youth.
The controversy has raised the company’s profile in the United States, leading to a significant number of inquiries from wholesalers and consumers looking to buy its lemonade and other products.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.