Correction appended Aug. 23
Although bootlegging is a crime most people would associate with tommy guns and 1930s-era gangsters like Al Capone, it’s apparently still happening even in the 21st century.
At a press conference in Newark Thursday, the head of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control announced that a Bloomfield man and his employee were charged with illegally distributing“Extracto de Malta,” an alcoholic beverage, to small supermarkets and bodegas in Spanish-speaking communities in Newark and throughout New Jersey.
“We’ve found this bottle from North Bergen to Pennsauken,” said Michael Halfacre, director of the ABC, as he pointed to a brown 12-ounce container bearing a white label. “It’s on shelves throughout the state and it is being sold on unlicensed premises.”
Nelson A. Fernandez, a 63-year-old Bloomfield resident and owner of Condal Distributors of the Bronx, was charged* with selling the beverage without a license. The beverage was also distributed to establishments not authorized to sell alcohol and it is not registered with the state ABC, as required by law, officials said. Extracto de Malta is sold legally in New York, where it is a registered alcoholic beverage.
Arrested was a company salesman, Elbio Fanas, 44, of Yonkers, for soliciting the sale of alcohol without a license and for selling alcohol without a license.
Extracto de Malta, brewed in Hamburg, Germany, has an alcohol content of 3.5 to 4 percent, equivalent to a light beer, and was imported by Condal. A Surgeon General’s warning was affixed to the bottles distributed by Condal but the label did not contain the drink’s “alcohol by volume” percentage, as required by law, officials said.
State officials said no supermarket or bodega owners have yet been charged, but the businesses are being given a Sept. 1 deadline to remove the drink from their shelves. Posters in English and Spanish are being distributed to store owners throughout the state, although officials admitted it will be a challenge to inform all the small mom-and-pop operations that may have purchased the drink. Retailers found selling the drink after that date face a fine of up to $1,000 and three years in jail for each offense.
The state Division of Consumer Affairs will coordinate a statewide effort to get the word out to retailers and the public via its county offices, said Eric Kanefsky, acting director of the agency.
Of particular concern to state officials is that the beverage is being purchased by people apparently unaware of its alcohol content. The ABC first learned of the problem in June, after a NJ Transit bus driver tested positive for alcohol during a routine screening. The driver insisted he had not been drinking alcohol but did tell investigators he had consumed a bottle of Extracto de Malta he’d purchased at a Newark bodega. Testing later revealed the drink contained alcohol.
The driver had not been impaired, officials Thursday stressed.
The drink has often been displayed alongside a popular and legal non-alcoholic beverage, Malta, in what Halfacre said may be a “deliberate” attempt to confuse the public. Along with the danger of adults becoming impaired unknowingly, Halfacre also expressed concern that children may also be at risk.
Asked whether there were any instances of minors drinking the beverage, Halfacre said, “We don’t know. We’re hoping not.”
*This sentence was corrected to read that Fernandez was charged.