Calif. bars rejoice: infused alcohol ban lifted

AP News
Posted: Sep 24, 2011 4:09 PM
Calif. bars rejoice: infused alcohol ban lifted

In this city famous for food and drink experimentation, so-called "craft" bartenders have fought for three years to overturn a Prohibition-era state law that banned bars from infusing flavors into alcohol.

Bartenders, worry no longer.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law repealing the ban on imbuing alcohol in bars and restaurants with fresh flavors.

The antiquated law was forgotten until 2008, when the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control _ after noticing an increasing number of Bay Area bars infusing booze with their own flavors _ issued an advisory telling its licensees that "rectification" of distilled spirits at their businesses was illegal.

While no bars or restaurants ever received fines or were cited under the law, owners in San Francisco, where the practice is common and growing quickly, said the fear of fines or revoked liquor licenses stifled creativity and a burgeoning new business. There were reports of raids on some city bars by ABC, and stern warnings of fines.

"At the end of the day, no one would be telling a chef that they can't take a beautiful Italian olive oil and mix it with a clove of garlic and make a great garlic olive oil," said Josh Harris, a bartender and owner of The Bon Vivants, a cocktail and spirits consulting company, who helped organize an online petition in support of lifting the ban.

"To us, it's the same thing."

The chorus of boos shouted by bar and restaurant owners_many of whom did not know the law existed_ was heard by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. Leno's district includes North Beach and the bayside, where a good chunk of tourism and city nightlife resides.

"Especially in a down economy, it makes absolutely no sense for the government to be infringing with the creativity of small businesses for no viable public policy reason," Leno said.

State alcohol and beverage regulators said the law started with public health in mind. In the days of Prohibition, it was meant to protect consumers from bath-tub gin. It also sought to prevent establishments from adding ingredients that could prove dangerous.

Matthew Botting, general counsel for the ABC, said the law was never an issue until recent years, when inspectors noticed the infused alcohol during routine inspections.

"There were some inspections being conducted, which had nothing to do with this issue, in the Bay Area, where certain questions were asked about `What are you doing with this?' People were dropping herbs and spices into bottles and displaying them on the bar. It was more of a passing comment than anything else," Botting said.

"ABC has never cited or fined anyone for this, and has never directed anyone to pour their stuff out. It was a tempest in a teapot," he said.

Yet the warnings were enough to energize bar owners, who were investing their money on the popularity of infused alcoholic drinks. Leno arranged meetings with his constituents and regulators.

At first the ABC's staff defended the law, saying public health was the target of the ban, Leno said.

"We asked the ABC at the meetings, `In all these years you have not been enforcing this law, how many reports of ill health have there been?,'" he said. "Not a one they could recount."

In the end, ABC officials said the law needed to be stricken from the books for them to be able to do anything. They simply couldn't ignore it.

Most other lawmakers in Sacramento agreed the ban was bad for business, and the Leno-sponsored bill, SB 32, received bipartisan support.

The repeal's signing could not have been timelier. It came amid San Francisco cocktail week.