SOUTH FLORIDA -

Selling bargain-basement booze as top-shelf alcohol -- does it happen in South Florida?

The state suspects it does, but a Local 10 investigation finds that the state is almost powerless to prevent it.

"They (customers) know what they want," said Donal Kearney, who owns Tonic Club and Lounge in Fort Lauderdale. "They know what they like."

SPECIAL SECTION: Local 10 Investigates

Premium alcohols fetch a premium price. At Tonic, they typically cost an extra $2, a difference that adds up to at least 20 percent more at most taverns.

"Huge difference," said Kearney. "There's a difference in the price, [and] there's a difference in the taste, you know. People want what they pay for."

But, according to state inspectors, customers may not always get what they pay for. Are they capable of determining who is serving real, top-shelf alcohol and who is not, though?

Inspectors originally issued an Applebee's restaurant at 9815 NW 41st Street in Doral a warning in 2012 after an anonymous complaint said it was "refilling Absolut Vodka and 1800 Tequila with 'house' alcohol."

"We can't do any interviews inside the building without contacting corporate first," a manager told Local 10's Ross Palombo.

"Well, can you tell me if you're switching the booze?" asked Palombo.

"No. We can't have any of the cameras inside," the manager replied.

"I believe it was Absolut," said Lisa Lizano, an Applebee's customer. "I would like to think I did, but now, I'm not sure."

In Dec. 2012, state inspectors originally cited Our Place in Fort Lauderdale for misrepresenting alcoholic beverages.

During the last 12 months, complaints led inspectors to 40 bars in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties that were either given violations or warnings for refilling bottles or misrepresenting alcohol, according to the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. That's up 22 percent from the year before.

ABT Dir. Allen Douglas said when bars are given warnings, "We think or fear you're doing something wrong, but we can't yet prove it. We're watching you."

Last year, state inspectors originally issued a warning to The Knife in Doral for refilling of alcoholic beverage bottles. Piola in South Beach originally received the same warning.

Many times, state investigators can prove nothing. The cases at Applebee's, Our Place, The Knife, and Piola were finally closed after inspectors were unable to find definitive evidence of refilling bottles or misrepresenting alcohol.

After Local 10 began to question the warnings given to these restaurants, the state completely revised its system and removed the "warning" option from its paperwork. It also went back and rewrote the original warnings for Applebee's, Our Place, The Knife, and Piola as merely a "record of visit," essentially erasing those past warnings.

A state spokesperson said they made the change to be clearer about what it can and can't prove.

"I'm sure it happens. Every business has its dirty little secrets," said Kearney. If you're doing it, you're shorting your customers. You're not going to have them for too long."

In May, authorities in New Jersey seized alcohol from 29 bars as part of a year-long investigation into allegations that the businesses have been fooling customers by filling bottles from premium brands with cheaper well liquor.