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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Though the law is on the books with good intentions, it is very much out of date and out of touch with where cocktails are today.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.

Comments

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Camper English

I just found this blog post that gives some nice context for the reason that rectification is illegal.

http://nochoiceatall.blogspot.com/2010/02/inspectors-taking-hard-look-at-how.html

Jason C

thank you for immediately addressing this issue CE. this is huge. not to mention, it effects like 75% of my cocktail sales! wtf.

Camper English

As far as I know only two bars have actually been forced to dump out their infusions and according to the Chronicle story they won't actually be cited for their "offense." So while this issue is unnerving, I don't know that I'd go changing anything in my cocktail program unless I was already on shaky ground with the ABC.

Victoria

I don't knwo what to say..In 1999, I started making fresh fruit infusions at the bar I managed for 6 years..they never had a problem with it then..But THERE IS a proper way to infuse. To be very honest here, and I have been battling even bringing this up on any post, is that, I, 4 years ago, had a bad infusion from a bar that DID NOT know how to make a fruit infusion. The fruit was in the JAR much much to long,hence, the Vodka was, not only becoming rancid,and being depleted, but the fruit was remaining exposed, oh no wait it gets better..I saw the next bartender come on duty, cut more pineapple, and place it ON TOP of the OLD pineapple that was growing MOLD!! OK?? I shit you not. I have been cooking since I was a kid, my grandfather taught me how to make Infusions. The problem, at least one of the problems that I think the ABC may be looking at is, the PROPER PROCESS of how to make infusions,. Oh boy DUH !!
The problem being as well, Bars that don't have kitchens and are not licensed to "cook" and have not gone through proper FOOD handling.
So, gee, problem solved, let the bars with Kitchens make thier Infusions.

Colleen

Think about this... With state revenues depleting so drastically they could make some additional revenue from providing/requiring courses or certification licenses for bars who want to do infusions and homemade mixers so instances like the horrific pineapple issue do not come up - that's disgusting.

Double edged sword. Yes, we all try to encourage this natural, handmade aspect but there always has to be a standard of quality. For any bar manager to send a tainted vodka out like that is screaming for a law suit or, at the least, a loss in business.

Alex

we may not need to wait years for the law to change. if someone takes the ABC to court and gets a ruling in their favor, then there will be a precedent in the interpretation of the law, thereby rendering the ABC basically toothless regarding this particular issue.

i also like the idea of the state getting revenue from food-handling courses that specifically address infusions, bitters and cordials. that would be a win-win situation for the customer and the state.

Michae Lazar

What Alex said.

With fingers crossed....

Michael

Michael Lazar

P.S. I realize I should also have asked if there's anything we can do to help. I'm all about tinctures and maceration with aspirations of doing it professionally from behind someone's mahogany one day. I'd hate to be robbed of the opportunity.

Cocktailgeek

um, any bar cutting Grey goose with water and selling it as Smirnoff will be losing money hand over fist. I'm sure you meant it the other way around.

;)

Camper English

True, but it would be equally illegal!

Hobson's Choice

Hey Camper,

Thanks for the link. I wish it could have been for a more positive story. I too was holding off on writing anything until I saw the Chronicle post. I have been communicating with the ABC folks and hope to have further clarification of that department's interpretation of the law early next week.

I like your suggestions for solutions. That second option is much like we already have with raw eggs in cocktails - a la the health department incident at the Pegu Club in NYC.

Lisa Averbuch, Founder, LOFT Organic Liqueurs

I took a food safety certification course during my restaurant days and while there is good information in general for anyone handling food, even in a bar setting, there’s nothing pertinent about what happens when you drop that food into alcohol.

I think one of the big issues with trying to regulate the making/use of house-infused spirits is that there's just not a lot of information out there on what "safe" alcohol levels are especially when there are other ingredients involved. For wine, plenty of resources, but for spirits, not so much. When I started making LOFT liqueurs using fresh fruits and botanicals, I had the same question - is it safe? It took dozens of phone calls to find qualified advice and then many lab analyses before I could answer "yes." And I don’t really see bars sending off their infusions for analysis prior to serving. Most responses I got to my inquiries were along the way were along the lines of, “why would you want to use fresh ingredients anyway??” Sigh…

One reason that there are so many artificially flavored (and chock full of preservatives) products out there is that whether you’re a big conglomerate (or neighborhood bartender for that matter) it’s HARD to make the real thing shelf-stable. As ingredient panels on commercially produced spirits aren’t mandatory, most of the time we don’t even really know WHAT is in most the spirits we drink.

Even knowing what I know, I still order and enjoy a nice cocktail made with spirits the bartender created out of his or her passion for the craft. I do think, however, that a level of awareness regarding potential safety issues is a good thing.

And there are at least SOME really high quality delicious commercially produced freshly flavored products on the market… :)

Jackie

I sure hope this issue can be sorted out because I love the creative drinks being served around town. However, I agree that proper know-how is key.

Michael Lazar

So I re-read the Chronicle article and this leaped out at me:

"The agency, known as ABC, does not plan to cite the bar for the alleged transgression, nor three other Bay Area saloons where agents recently found homemade infusions while responding to unrelated complaints."

Does anyone happen to know what the nature of these unrelated complaints might have been?

Michael

Mr. Fizz

In addition to onions, many farmers and produce vendors will now have to keep one eye peeled for john law. Haven't you ever bought peaches that were slightly fermented. Yep, happens.

MrFizz@FizzGiz.com

Peter

2018 California Code
Business and Professions Code - BPC
DIVISION 9 - ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES
CHAPTER 1 - General Provisions and Definitions
Section 23016.

Universal Citation: CA Bus & Prof Code § 23016 (2018)
23016.
“Rectifier” means every person who colors, flavors, or otherwise processes distilled spirits by distillation, blending, percolating, or other processes. “Rectifier” does not include an on-sale licensee that colors, flavors, or blends distilled spirits or wine products on the on-sale licensed premises to be consumed on the licensed premises.

(Amended by Stats. 2011, Ch. 301, Sec. 1. (SB 32) Effective September 21, 2011.)

Camper English

Yep! The California law was changed in response to this specific issue. This post is from 2010.

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