If It Isn’t Authorized, It’s Prohibited

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Alcohol regulators in California don’t seem to understand the process of infusing spirits with flavors like orange or vanilla. So naturally, they’re prohibiting that which they don’t understand, invoking a ban on on-site distilling that really has nothing to do with the infusion process.

The state of California has suddenly started issuing warnings to bars and restaurants prohibiting them from “infusing” liquors such as vodka with herbs or fruits—a popular and widespread practice. But the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Department has no clear explanation for why it has targeted several establishments in the San Francisco Bay Area in recent weeks. And it can’t, or won’t, definitively answer the fundamental question of why it’s illegal in the first place to make infusions without having a special license.

In fact, the law under which the warnings were issued doesn’t have anything to say about infusion, but rather seems aimed at preventing bars from making their own hooch, creating dangerous brews, or adulterating liquor to increase its alcohol content.

“It’s totally insane,” said Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, which happens to be headquartered in the Bay Area. “I’d never heard of such a thing. It baffles me beyond my wildest dreams.”

Chris Albrecht, an ABCD deputy division chief, said that despite the enforcement actions, the department “does not consider this a priority.” The warnings, he said, were issued to a few establishments where enforcement agents showed up in response to unrelated complaints. Agents saw that infused drinks were being offered for sale, issued the warnings, and, in at least one case, asked an employee to pour the illicit concoctions down the drain, Albrecht said.

State alcohol regulators have to be among the most petty and arbitrary bureaucrats in government. Witness my state of Virginia, where they recently resurrected a Prohibition-era law to arrest a bartender for serving sangria (the state legislature had to pass a bill legalizing sangria and martinis), and went after my favorite bar a couple years ago for serving delicious frozen beer on a stick.

Somewhat related: How to make bacon-infused bourbon.

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30 Responses to “If It Isn’t Authorized, It’s Prohibited”

  1. #1 |  Nando | 

    Chris Albrecht, an ABCD deputy division chief, said that despite the enforcement actions, the department “does not consider this a priority.” The warnings, he said, were issued to a few establishments where enforcement agents showed up in response to unrelated complaints. Agents saw that infused drinks were being offered for sale, issued the warnings

    This sounds like a few Agents on a power trip (kind of like a “rogue” cop) and then the establishment covering for them (again, kind of like a “rogue” cop). I bet if taken to court, the court would rule in favor of the bars, tho.

  2. #2 |  Michael Chaney | 

    I was going to ask the fundamental difference between this and a mixed drink, then I saw your comment about Sangria in VA.

    Just. Wow.

  3. #3 |  SJE | 

    Infusion is as old as alcohol. It is a common way not only of flavoring alcohol, but also of extracting and preserving medicinals.

  4. #4 |  SJE | 

    The excessive regulation, and the high taxes, are the reason I stayed in the DC region instead of moving to California, despite the better weather and closer to family.

  5. #5 |  Rich | 

    RE: “State alcohol regulators have to be among the most petty and arbitrary bureaucrats in government”

    …maybe we should have a contest… A TV show! “American Bureaucrat.” John Stossel, Ron Paul, and Drew Carey can be judges.

  6. #6 |  JS | 

    This is America, everything’s illegal.

  7. #7 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    “I’d never heard of such a thing. It baffles me beyond my wildest dreams.”

    “It” is just abuse of power. Hear about it all the time.

    Does this mean the lime in my GT is illegal? What about the Shandy!?

    In Soviet Russia, infusing was legal.

  8. #8 |  Andrew Williams | 

    “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”–Robert Zimmerman

  9. #9 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Damn, I’m going to a russian restaurant this weekend, I still hope they have their jalapeno-garlic infused vodka. Weird sounding I know, but it goes great with the black bread with butter.

  10. #10 |  Nick42 | 

    FYI – I haven’t tried bacon infused whiskey, but bacon infused vodka is well neigh undrinkable.

  11. #11 |  SJE | 

    It isn’t too bad after the first 2 glasses

  12. #12 |  whiskey | 

    Radley, do you even go to Rustico’s any more? I’m there like all the time and never see you around.

  13. #13 |  Charlie O | 

    Some of the most rogue LEOs in Texas work for the TABC. Look at the raid on the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth no too long ago.

  14. #14 |  Steve from Ohio | 

    Best line from this article, by far:

    According to Albrecht, the answer is “based on public health and safety.” But when I asked him what was unhealthy or unsafe about infusion, he had no answer other than to say: “The department does not employ medical professionals.”

    Priceless.

  15. #15 |  PW | 

    This is why Obama’s order to stop prosecuting medical marijuana is worth no more than the paper it was written on. Until you change the actual law itself and physically take away the power of police to enforce it, there will always be that rogue (or maybe not so rogue) cop out there who uses his vast and nearly unchecked discretionary power to enforce obscure, meaningless, and absurd codes simply because the law says he can.

    The political leadership can even be 100% in agreement not to enforce something, but all it takes is one thug on a power trip and a personal crusade against alcohol, tobacco, drugs, guns, or anything else. Hell, cops even discriminate against people who drive certain types of cars or have a certain skin color because they can. You don’t even have to be doing anything wrong because the laws are so vaguely and poorly written and their discretion to enforce them is so broad they can literally arrest you at any time they want.

    Walking on a public sidewalk? You could be loitering. Having a conversation in a public place with friends? You could be breaking a noise ordinance, or engaging in “disorderly conduct.” Having a drink in a bar? You could be “drunk in public.” Driving on virtually any public roadway? Do it long enough and you could be making an “improper” lane change, passing over some innocuous road stripe at the “wrong” place, or “driving aggressively” and “accelerating too quickly” even if you are within the speed limit and obeying all stoplights. And above all else if you so much as raise your voice to protest a cop doing something wrongful or illegal to you or anyone else, you could be “interfering with a police officer” or “resisting arrest.”

    The point is that cops do not typically arrest people for crimes they witness. They arrest people for doing something that they personally don’t like, and then find a vague discretionary “offense” on the books and redefine it to fit the case. And they are intentionally trained to do this.

  16. #16 |  PW | 

    “State alcohol regulators have to be among the most petty and arbitrary bureaucrats in government.”

    Correction: Cops in general have to be among the most petty and arbitrary bureaucrats in government.

    The ones that do liquor stuff are no different in downright pettyness than the ones that police anything else. It’s inherent to the cop mindset of “us vs. the world.”

  17. #17 |  hattio | 

    PW says;

    “The ones [cops] that do liquor stuff are no different in downright pettyness than the ones that police anything else. It’s inherent to the cop mindset of “us vs. the world.””

    Actually, PW, the ABC cops really are worse. I know, I know. It’s tough to believe a group of people could be pettier than the normal police. But they can and they do. Which is kinda a feat, now that you mention it. You have to remember, lots of young boys want to grow up to be cops, so at least there is some small amount of happiness in their lives. NOBODY dreams of growing up to be an ABC board cop. So they are denied their dreams of being a “real” cop, and take it out on the people they come in contact with. Oh, and some think that if they do a “real good job” enforcing the ABC laws, they can, maybe, someday, before they are too old, move up to being real cops. All adds up to them being even worse than regular police.

  18. #18 |  Andrew Williams | 

    I knew I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.

  19. #19 |  PW | 

    The only thing that makes liquor cops seem “way worse” is the fact that society has become accustomed to tolerating the pettyness of other types of cops under the belief that what they do is “acceptable” or even beneficial behavior.

    Think about it for a moment as it applies to speed limits. Every driver at some point in his/her life will speed. It’s a simple combination of statistical probability and the fact that posted speed limits constantly vary from road to road and even block to block. Most of that speeding is minor, and sometimes you don’t even realize you’re doing it (ever been driving in a 30 mph and glanced down at the speedometer only to realize you’ve edged up to 35?). But the simple fact of it is that people speed, and 99% of the time they do so in a COMPLETELY SAFE manner that harms absolutely nobody. Speeding doesn’t even begin to become dangerous until you’re a good 15-20 mph above, and even then it’s not guaranteed (ever been on an empty straightaway highway in flyover territory? The speed limit says 70, but a competent and reasonably skilled driver could easily and safely do 100 there – in fact that does happen in places like the Autobahn, where the difference in road accidents is virtually negligible from those with speed limits).

    That said, it’s generally not a smart idea to make a habit of speeding – not even mild speeding in the 5-10 over range. Why? There is ONE REASON and one reason alone. It is called cops, and they will pull you over for the smallest speeding infraction even if the circumstances of the road otherwise dictate that you are posing absolutely no threat to any other drivers (and even if they regularly speed themselves on the same road while responding to calls…or turning their lights on for convenience to get around traffic). But people in this country simply view that sort of thing as if it were normal and acceptable police behavior. If you were speeding and you got a ticket, the mindset is that you “deserved” it, and if you got away with it before it’s only because you got lucky.

    I’m sorry, but that kind of logic is patently absurd. The simple truth is, I am perfectly capable of safely traveling at 80 mph on an open highway, as are most other drivers. The fact that I can do that and so choose to do it does not make me “deserving” of penalization for doing so, simply because somebody else appointed himself “protector” of my safety against my wishes and without me ever giving him my consent. What kind of a person sits on the side of the roadway, intercepts travelers, and essentially robs them of the contents of their wallet at gunpoint because he personally and arbitrarily deems their chosen rate of travel to be “unsafe” even if it plainly and demonstrably is not?

    A petty minded tyrant, that’s who. And it’s a mindset that 99% of all cops have ingrained into them.

  20. #20 |  SJE | 

    I suppose the only upshot of this asinine law is that is does not affect beer. Damn they are making some fine brews in Northern California and Oregon.

  21. #21 |  ryanm | 

    This is just a new stage in the California ABC and the SFPD’s war on fun. Check out the DNA Lounge’s blog for more tooth-grinding fun:
    http://www.dnalounge.com/backstage/log/
    http://www.stopthewaronfun.org/
    Prudish enforcement officers, power-crazed cops issuing invalid citations and randomly-applied legislation, all overseen by a police chief who has gone on record saying the city would be better off without any nightlife at all.

  22. #22 |  SJE | 

    WTF? From the above links

    Bottom of the Hill has been cited for not serving enough Mexican food.
    Café du Nord has been cited for serving food at 8pm instead of 5pm (its website explicitly states that the doors open 1 hour before shows, and food is served 30 min after doors open)
    DNA Lounge has been cited for “lewd behavior”.
    Glas Kat supper club has been cited for not being open for lunch.
    Great American Music Hall has been cited for not serving enough food.
    Red Devil Lounge has been cited by for noise, with ABC disregarding local noise ordinances.
    Slim’s has also been cited for not serving enough food.

  23. #23 |  Michael Chaney | 

    This is why Obama’s order to stop prosecuting medical marijuana is worth no more than the paper it was written on.

    As I’ve said before, there’s absolutely no evidence that there ever was such an order, written or otherwise.

  24. #24 |  Dave in MS | 

    SJE @ 20: “I suppose the only upshot of this asinine law is that is does not affect beer. Damn they are making some fine brews in Northern California and Oregon.”

    Remember the poem, “First they came for….”

  25. #25 |  Andrew Williams | 

    #8

    I guess you were referring to the idiot Carrie Nations in CA, right?

  26. #26 |  Joey Maloney | 

    @7 – No, in Soviet Russia alcohol infuses you!

  27. #27 |  Andrew Williams | 

    They refer to it as infusiasm.

  28. #28 |  CK | 

    Bacon Baklava
    http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/bacon-baklava
    Do not expect this sort of niceness to be a regular thing.

  29. #29 |  David | 

    For a group of people who beat the “Criminals getting off on technicalities” drum, our “justice” system loves to find technicalities to arrest and prosecute people on.

  30. #30 |  Jaundicedi | 

    Since the police are being technical, maybe someone should point out that infusions are steeped in water. When you steep something in alcoholic spirits to extract the essence it is called a tincture.

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