An opinion released Wednesday by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says that only the Kentucky-made bourbon can carry the distinctive bottle topper.
The decision comes in an appeal brought by London-based Diageo North America and Casa Cuervo of Mexico, which used a dripping red wax seal on special bottles of its Reserva tequila. U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II in 2010 granted Maker's Mark's request for an injunction stopping other liquor companies from using the seal.
In a 19-page opinion affirming that decision, Judge Boyce F. Martin noted: "Distillers compete intensely on flavour, but also through branding and marketing; the history of bourbon, in particular, illustrates why strong branding and differentiation is important in the distilled spirits market."
The Samuels family, which created Maker's Mark in 1958, trademarked the distinctive seal in 1985. The seal, perfected by Margie Samuels in the family's deep fryer, doesn't serve any practical purpose in keeping the bottle closed.
Deerfield, Illinois-based Fortune Brands, which now owns Maker's Mark, has since split its liquor business into a new company called Beam Inc.
Cuervo opted to include a dripping wax seal on bottles in 1997 as part of an effort to create an artisan look. The bottles of Reserva with the new seal entered the U.S. market in 2001 in a limited production of 3,000-to-4,000 bottles. The bottles remained on sale in the U.S. for about three years.
Maker's Mark, bottled in Loretto in central Kentucky, spends about $22 million annually to market its bourbon and sells about 800,000 cases a year. It sued over the seal in 2003, claiming it violated the long-standing trademark. Cuervo dropped the dripping wax seal six years ago.
Messages left for Diageo North America and Casa Cuervo were not immediately returned Wednesday morning.