A relationship that was almost legendary in the world of Irish whiskey is now a docket number on a federal court calendar.

Twin Cities pub maven Kieran Folliard on Wednesday sued the makers of Jameson Irish whiskey to prevent the spirits giant from promoting its own version of a whiskey-and-ginger-ale cocktail made famous at the Local in Minneapolis, once one of Folliard's Irish pub establishments.

Folliard wants a federal judge to prohibit Jameson from marketing the "Big Jameson Ginger" because of the name's resemblance to Folliard's signature "The Big Ginger" highball that his pubs have been selling since 2005.

"Considering the affront of this strike on my business and livelihood, I did not have a choice in this situation," Folliard said of the lawsuit in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. "I couldn't NOT take this road. This is not fun for me; nobody wants to enter court."

A spokesman for Jameson owner Pernod Ricard declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.

The Big Ginger is a specialty drink that includes Irish whiskey, ginger ale and a wedge each of lemon and lime. It has a lower-calorie cousin -- the Skinny Ginger -- made from diet ginger ale.

Folliard, through his businesses A Kieran Collection and 2 Gingers Whiskey, is seeking an order to prevent Jameson from using any name that incorporates "big" and "ginger" for its cocktails on the grounds that those words are protected by a trademark issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2009.

The suit is before Chief Judge Michael Davis in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

Law Professor Kenneth Port said Folliard will have to show real economic harm and the existence of consumer confusion to get an injunction against Jameson.

"He needs real evidence, and that's either direct testimony or a survey," said Port, who also is director of the Intellectual Property Institute at the William Mitchell College of Law. "It's a hard case to make. It's just three generic words."

St. Patrick's Day is key

With St. Patrick's Day just one month away, the lawsuit asserts that timing is critical to Folliard's commercial success with his line of 2 Gingers Whiskey because more Irish whiskey is consumed on and around March 17 than any other time of the year.

The Local, formerly owned by Folliard, has been honored by Jameson for the past five years as the largest on-site seller of its whiskey in the world. The lawsuit says that nearly three-fourths of the Jameson consumed in Folliard's establishments was in the form of Big Ginger or Skinny Ginger drinks.

In the five years that the Local held the Jameson record for whiskey poured, Folliard said his pubs sold an average of 40 bottles of Jameson every day.

But Folliard essentially broke from Jameson last year as rising whiskey prices cut into profit margins for his four pubs. He eventually replaced Jameson with his own house brand as the prime Irish whiskey on premises and called the new whiskey 2 Gingers.

Folliard sold his restaurant interests, which also include Kieran's, the Liffey and Cooper Pub, to concentrate on the liquor distribution business and also to comply with laws that prohibit a distiller from being a bar owner.

The lawsuit says Folliard rejected an offer of $200,000 from Pernod Ricard in 2009 for the right to use the Big Ginger name as inadequate "to realize the full potential economic value that had been created through [the] significant efforts and investment of time, energy and resources behind this idea and product."

Folliard learned of the existence of the Big Jameson Ginger cocktail earlier this month from promotions in bars and restaurants in northeast Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, the lawsuit said.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269