Serious Eats: Drinks
California Cracks Down on House-Infused Booze
"The question remains: why do these outdated laws still exist, and why are they enforced in the manner that we're now seeing in San Francisco?"
First it was New York City health officials interfering with bars using raw eggs in drinks. Now, the latest controversy to set the drink-related Twitterverse and blog world aflame is in San Francisco, where state liquor authorities have begun cracking down on bars that prepare and serve house-infused spirits, tinctures and other house-made ingredients.
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week, now-common flavoring steps such as soaking vanilla beans in bourbon or lemon zest in vodka, or producing house-made tinctures and bitters, violate California rules against "rectification"—defined by the liquor agency as "any process or procedure whereby distilled spirits are cut, blended, mixed or infused with any ingredient which reacts with the constituents of the distilled spirits and changes the character and nature or standards of identity of the distilled spirits."
The crackdown came as a surprise to bars around San Francisco, a city where local U.S. Bartender's Guild president Reza Esmaili estimates half the bars are serving spirits that in some way have been infused or flavored on site.
What's not surprising is that so many bars engage in the process. Alcohol is a particularly effective solvent for leaching flavors out of fruit and other ingredients, and it's an excellent preservative as well. While the state says that mixing spirits with other ingredients immediately before serving—such as in the process of mixing a cocktail—is fine under the law, the rules could apply to drinks such as punch and sangria if prepared in advance.
Concerns about rectification date to an era when it was not uncommon for unscrupulous liquor distributors or bar owners to adulterate a spirit before selling it to a customer, in order to stretch the supply and maximize profit. As with other laws in Washington, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and other states, that establish cumbersome state-run liquor monopolies (currently under review and possible repeal in some states), or "blue laws" in certain regions that prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sundays, the California rule was created generations ago, and is largely a product of a bygone time.
The question remains: why do these outdated laws still exist, and why are they enforced in the manner that we're now seeing in San Francisco?
What's your take? Are rules that prohibit things such as house-infused spirits, the sale of beer on Sunday or the private ownership of liquor stores still relevant in the 21st century? Or should the laws regulating the sale and serving of alcohol be revamped to better represent the way it's prepared and consumed today?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.