California Repeals Alcohol Infusion Ban

Bars and restaurants free to age, infuse wine and liquors

California Gov. Jerry Brown last week gave bars and restaurants in his state something to toast when he signed a law making it legal to infuse wine and spirits with fruits, herbs, and spices.

Brown said Wednesday he had signed Senate Bill 32, introduced by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association and California Restaurant Association, among numerous business trade groups and small businesses, supported the bill, Leno’s office said.

“I am pleased that the Governor has recognized the need to update an unnecessary regulation that has prevented businesses across California from making infused beverages available to their customers,” Leno said Wednesday in a statement. “This Prohibition-era statute did nothing more than punish California restaurants and small businesses that are using culinary innovations to survive in this difficult economy.”

Both chambers of the California Legislature unanimously approved the bill, which revised the state’s Business and Professions Code, originally intended to protect consumers from dangerous concoctions, such as moonshine.

The bill contained an urgency clause and became law immediately after Brown signed it.

“We are certainly cheering the repeal here at Bottle Cap,” said Pete Gowdy, bar manager of the 10-week-old, 103-seat restaurant and lounge in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. “We are barrel-aging a Vieux Carré cocktail — 10 liters — that will now be legal to serve. We’re also planning on one new aged cocktail a month as a cornerstone of the bar program.”

Vieux Carré is a traditional New Orleans drink made of equal parts rye whiskey, brandy, sweet vermouth and Benedictine liqueur and bitters. Gowdy’s batch has been aging for three weeks and may require an additional two to six weeks of maturation time, he said.

Across San Francisco Bay in Oakland, at two-and-half-year-old Picán, bar manager Josh Perry said he was “ecstatic” that the Leno bill has become law.

The clarification of the law “gives us bartenders a lot to work with” in terms of “enhancing existing product” and having a wider reign within which “to experiment and try new flavors and combinations,” Perry said.

According to Perry, 120-seat, Southern-cuisine inspired Picán is known for a bacon-infused bourbon used in its Old Fashioned; a smoked brisket-infused bourbon for a Manhattan; and lavender-infused vodka.

Leno championed the change as a result of confusion that arose more than a year ago, when the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, or ABC, began notifying bar owners that the code section in question prohibited them from being a “rectifier.” As defined by the original code and interpreted by the ABC, a rectifier was anyone who colors, flavors or otherwise processes distilled spirits by distillation, blending, percolating or other longer curing processes.

As revised, the California code section excludes from the definition of “rectifier” any on-sale licensee infusing flavors into wines or spirits meant for consumption on his or her premises.

The ABC’s interpretation of the code did not go so far as to ban bars from inserting or muddling essences into alcohol while preparing beverages, such as a mint julep, for immediate consumption. Nonetheless, it caused consternation among California on-premise purveyors of exotic cocktails, some of whom used infused spirits or wines in signature drinks.

Perry said the ABC’s actions had dampened sales at some bars and heightened anxiety among operators interested in working with infusions.

“I can't say it slowed sales; [it] felt more like harassment,” said Bottle Cap’s Gowdy, who recalled an ABC enforcement action at San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch bar when he worked there.

“They were infusing vodka and gin with cucumber and rye with pear [and] at least a case of each was dumped, possibly a tequila infusion as well,” Gowdy said. “In addition, their sister bar, Rickhouse, had to dump large quantities of infusions.”

As a result, Bourbon & Branch pulled several [infused] drinks off the menu and changed a few to fresh cocktails, Gowdy said.

Amanda Bowman, general manager of E&O Trading Co. in San Francisco, explained that her modern Asian restaurant “pulled our infusion jars” upon hearing that ABC said bars and restaurants were prohibited from selling the products. “We [had] had the jars prominently on display behind the bar and thought it was best to play nice until we knew exactly what was going on.”

Bowman said her staff used fresh fruits and muddling to try to re-create the flavors of infused products, “but often those cocktails were more work for less flavor.”

“I would say our bar program did change for a while, but our sales did not suffer,” she added.

For instance, the restaurant’s popular Lanai cocktail was made with pineapple- and vanilla-infused rum before the ABC crackdown. Before the law changed this week, “We tried different rums and syrups and muddling fresh pineapples and the drink was never the same,” Bowman said. “Our guests are thrilled the old recipe is back.”

— Alan J. Liddle

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