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Ilegal Infusions: The Word Gets Out

For the past month or so, San Francisco bars have been in a panic as the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) decided to crack down on a few bars for having infusions. These, it turns out, are technically illegal in California, as are homemade bitters, tinctures, and liqueurs like limoncello.

I decided it was best not to share this information with too many people, as maybe it's best the ABC doesn't know that half the bars in the city- including all the best ones- have some form of rectified spirits on the menu. But today the Chronicle put forth the news in a story that is now online.

Reza Esmaili, president of the Northern California chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, estimated that half the bars in San Francisco serve them.

So there we have it.

Why are they illegal? Here's why, from the same Chronicle story:

Infusion confusion

Bars and restaurants can mix and muddle drinks and serve them right away to customers, according to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. But they cannot engage in "rectification," which the agency defines 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."

Bay Area bartenders say infused spirits typically take a few hours to a few days to take on the flavor of the fruit, vegetable or herb that is placed in the alcohol. They said the law could affect not only infusions but house-made tinctures, bitters, syrups and liqueurs.

Obviously, this is problematic. As one bartender said to me, "So the ABC thinks it's better to have artificially-flavored Sour Apple Pucker on the menu than apple-infused vodka?" Yep!

The law was written not to promote bad drinking but to protect consumers. It's the same law that prevents you from cutting Grey Goose with 50% water and putting it into a Smirnoff bottle to sell. You're supposed to know what you're getting.

There are also health concerns- will all that stuff floating in the jar spoil and make you sick?

Though the law is on the books with good intentions, it is very much out of date and out of touch with where cocktails are today. (Cocktails are a cuisine.) Possible solutions to this problem might include:

  • Having any bar that serves infused or otherwise rectified products take a food safety course or certification program. Whether this would be for all bartenders, just the bar manager, or just the one person assigned to the rectified spirits could be determined later. This would take care of the food safety issue.
  • Insist on clear menu labeling for rectified spirits, such as starring menu items and listing a footnote at the bottom of the menu that states, "This cocktail includes rectified spirits such as infused fruits or spices, which alters the flavor and may lower the proof of the base spirit." This would take care of the consumer warning issue. 

Regardless, the current laws on the books will likely take years to change, if they change at all. In the meantime the illegal state of rectified spirits such as infusions and sorta-not-really prosecution status for them allows for inconsistent and/or discriminatory enforcement of the law.