24-Feb-2010 (Wed) Wherein the ABC decides that infusions and bitters are illegal.

I've been holding off on writing about this one for some time, hoping that some more facts would become public about it, but it seems that the press has gotten hold of the rumor-and-innuendo version, so I guess it's time. Michael Bauer writes in the SF Chronicle:

Are my favorite bartenders going to be sent to jail?

I recently had a beautiful cocktail at one of my favorite restaurants, lovingly crafted by the bartender using house-infused liquors. I won't tell you which one because I don't want him carted off to jail.

The above sentence is a bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but it's not far from the truth. The California Alcoholic Beverage Control is cracking down on people who "adulterate" spirits by making limoncello and infusing spirits with herbs or fruit. Reportedly, agents have been in San Francisco recently sniffing out these grievous lawbreakers.

It's ironic, the budget may be near the busting point, but the ABC still has resources to crack down on restaurants. In the last couple of weeks a team of enforcers have cited at least four restaurants in the Bay Area, making them pour out their creations.

So far they have only been attacking high-end cocktail bars who create their own infusions, bitters and limoncello, but ABC's new, absurd interpretation of the law would effectively outlaw cocktails entirely.

John Hinman, a lawyer who represents many local folks in their various battles against ABC has this to say:

The ABC's theory is that the act of making a cocktail for consumption later (like pre-mixing long island iced teas, or infusing fruit for cocktails) is the act of "rectification" as defined in the ABC Act.

Read strictly of course, this means that NO cocktails are permitted at all because almost ALL cocktails require the blending of different distilled spirits products. The ABC skated around that conclusion by finding that if a cocktail is made it must be consumed "immediately."

Try to find that definition anywhere; you won't because its made up, much like the Rule 64.2 actions against the Bottom of the Hill, Slim's, the Cafe du Nord and the Great American Music Hall were made up. Those actions were finally dismissed last November after two years of battles with the ABC.

The statutory definition of "rectification" is in Section 23016. [...] Please note that there is no exception in the 23016 definition for "immediate" consumption.

The tied house laws play a part because they (1) prohibit a retailer from obtaining a rectifiers license and (2) prohibit a rectifier from selling for consumption. A catch-22 by definition.

What this does is outlaw cocktails. Anyone ever pre-mix a batch of margaritas for a Mexican party, or a batch of Long Island Iced teas? You just broke the law.

This story has been being passed around third-hand like a game of telephone for several months now. The reason there has been little press on it is that the bars who have been a victim of this latest absurd crackdown refuse to go public with their story. They say they have a "good relationship" with the police and don't want to mess that up.

Please note that this is the kind of "good relationship" where the police come into your business, physically assault your staff, and dump your product down the drain -- sometimes with charges filed, sometimes not.

I am appalled that the businesses who have been victimized in this way refuse to go public with their stories of abuse. When will these people learn that the way you stand up to a bully is not by curling up on the floor and crying, "Please stop hitting me, I promise I won't tell mom"?

Sack up, you cowards.

In his article, Bauer goes on to say, "I understand the ABC doesn't want people making moonshine. Look where that got us in the 1920s."

Yes, well. That's not exactly how the story of Prohibition actually went down. Please have a look at this recent article from Slate:

The Chemist's War: The little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences.

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

Although mostly forgotten today, the "chemist's war of Prohibition" remains one of the strangest and most deadly decisions in American law-enforcement history. As one of its most outspoken opponents, Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s, liked to say, it was "our national experiment in extermination." [...]

Industrial alcohol is basically grain alcohol with some unpleasant chemicals mixed in to render it undrinkable. The U.S. government started requiring this "denaturing" process in 1906 for manufacturers who wanted to avoid the taxes levied on potable spirits. [...] By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons -- kerosene and brucine (closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added -- up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.

So the "denatured" alcohol that is used for industrial purposes is not simply alcohol before it has been purified: it is alcohol that has been intentionally poisoned.

In the 1920s, this was because your government preferred that you be dead than drunk.

Today, it's because your government chooses to charge a higher "sin tax" on the kind of alcohol that one drinks, so they continue to poison the other kind in order to make that easier for them.

"We're from the Government. We're here to help."

27 Responses:

  1. Today, it's because your government chooses to charge a higher "sin tax" on the kind of alcohol that one drinks, so they continue to poison the other kind in order to make that easier for them.

    As far as I know, that was true prior to prohibition, as well. Taxing "vice" is not by any means a new phenomenon; I would like to believe the motivations have changed from religious and moral reasons to social stability and economic reasons, but, well, the ABC seems to be on a crusade of the classic sort.

  2. employee3 says:

    America, fuck yeah.

  3. ivorjawa says:

    How do these people make their decisions, reading Harry Potter?

    Does the ABC have an Officer Umbrage?

  4. latemodel says:

    Hey, you can still buy non-denatured ethanol for the lab. You just need a special seal, roughly the equivalent of a tax-exempt seal or a DEA license, to purchase it without tax. We do it all the time.

    • jered says:

      I remember a HHOS moment during lab orientation where I was told that if I had to drink something, I should drink the 95% ethanol, not the 99% ethanol. The 99% ethanol has to be fractionally distilled on nasty things like benzene in order to get the rest of the water out.

  5. bifrosty2k says:

    IMHO they don't have jurisdiction on this sort of call, the ATF does.

    That being said, I'm not sure if the ATF is more reasonable than the ABC because they're two organizations that I think are run with their heads up their collective asses.

    As an observer I'd like the line to be clear and well defined, but I'd also be really pissed if coctails were declared illegal...

    People want more government why again?

    • heresiarch says:

      sometimes "more government" leads to better regulation of basic necessities, like water, energy, and healthcare.

      in this case, the ABC needs to be reigned in hardcore, or better yet, dissolved -- but i don't think the problem is a matter of more vs less government.

      • bifrosty2k says:

        You would be right, if you weren't wrong.

        In most cases government interference has led to lower quality in just about everything. Thats not to say that "infrastructure" run by the government is a bad thing, but have you ever looked at the efficiency rates of things run by the government? Its dismal.

        • antabakalj says:

          Can you back up your claim that "government interference has led to lowered the quality in just about everything" with hard facts? I'd be interested.

          For the record: I love my governmental health care and social and unimployment insurance and pension. Things I will dearly miss when working in the US (or I will have to pay through the nose to get the same results).

          Yes, there are efficiency problem if the government runs these - but would you rather have a slightly inefficient solution or none at all?

          • bifrosty2k says:

            I could, but for the purposes of discussion, I won't.
            Well, I could point to the shining examples of Muni, HUD, Fannie/Freddie, Social Security, BATFE, IRS and the FDA. If any of these were civilian organizations, they're be out of business a long time ago...

            I'm also assuming by "governmental health care" you mean medicare/medicaid? The program thats going to be slashed by a billion or so dollars shortly?

            Also, with the way things are going your pension will be rolled into "the dole" so good luck getting that, along with "social security".

            I would rather put my money into a 401k plan where *I* am responsble for mismanaging it rather than the government, so yes, I would rather have no government requirement.

            • antabakalj says:

              Sorry, I see that I was unclear: I am not in the US at this moment - I was talking about the system in my country (which isn't perfect - inefficiency happens a lot). But no - I didn't refer to medicare/medicaid or the US pension/social security system.

              I don't know the specifics of the 401k plan, I will freely admit - I only heard that usually your pension is in danger when a) your employer bankrupts or b) you fall ill.

              • bifrosty2k says:

                To enlighten you then, the US doesn't have a pension system for everyone.

                The 401k plan is basically a bank account that you put money into for "retirement". Its actually not run by your employer, its run by you - the employee. It can't be taken away, even in bankruptcy, unless you do something stupid.

                Pensions are an antiquated way of saying "you're too dumb to save for your twilight years, so we'll do it for you, and make money off of money that we should've given you in the first place and we could also lose it if we're incompetent". So yeah, you're about right there.

                • antabakalj says:

                  Thanks for the explanation.

                  Still, seeing stuff like people lining up each year for free medical treatment like in a third world country seems unworthy of a developed nation to me.

                  Maybe it's the news filtering, I don't know, but I got the impression that a rather large portion of americans are not health insured and are basically out of luck if any serious illness occurs (which is the moment they have to dig into their their savings - provided they have any).

                  • bifrosty2k says:

                    Most of it is spin, for every one case where one person is outta luck, there are at least 100-200 that get covered.
                    Sure, there are people who lose everything but that can happen in any situation if you do the wrong thing.

                    The thing to really look at is - how many Americans like their healthcare coverage; Most do. Should the government really be allowed to screw that up so that some subset get more crappy government healthcare, I don't think so.

                  • jabberwokky says:

                    Just as a reality check (since I've run into this as a misconception): if it is a serious illness, you will receive treatment in the United State. Always. Nobody having a heart attack or with a deep wound is ever turned away from treatment. The only question is that of who pays the bill after treatment. If your life is in danger, you will be treated. Even for long illnesses, which is where the stories of people slowly draining their savings account come from. Treatment continues after bankruptcy, however.

                    Also, the destitute and people unable to make an income (severely handicapped, prisoners, etc) also have free or subsidized basic health coverage. This is done through a number of agencies, not all Federal, so coverage varies by region.

                    As noted below, most people do have health coverage, by the way. Of the remainder, a significant portion are people in the early 20s who have passed the age of being covered by their parents, are healthy and have not yet gotten a job or a job that has benefits. Often in that case, they are technically destitute, and coverage comes in through that door (although it often comes with a heck of a lot of paperwork to show lack of funds and a rider on any new income for the next several years).

                    Note that I am not advocating for or against anything political, just presenting a snapshot of what is to correct the idea that "a rather large portion of americans are not health insured and are basically out of luck if any serious illness occurs".

                  • antabakalj says:

                    Thanks for the explanation!

                  • antabakalj says:

                    But I'd still rather trust my health with a money-wasting governmental organisation then some private company.

                    Mostly because the private company has no interest in my health, but rather it's stockholders shares - which is achieved by paying as little as possible for the treatment of the insured people. Seems like a conflict of interest to me.

            • elusis says:

              I could, but for the purposes of discussion, I won't.

              Well there's a line of argument that's really convincing.

            • “If any of these were civilian organizations, they're be out of business a long time ago…”

              Buh? Have you actually interacted with any civilian(? I assume you actually mean private sector) organizations? In my experience they are every bit as much swamps of inefficiency and stupidity as government organizations. You seem unwilling to come up with any actual facts, so it looks like you're just another net.libertarian blowhard.

              • bifrosty2k says:

                I have, in fact; Quite exensively unfortunately.
                I also deal with several other governmental organizations on a regular basis, and I can tell you pretty definitively that most of them are incredibly more broken than their civilian counterparts.

                I've also come up with more facts than you have so it'd be great if you could at least come up with some more creative namecalling to make this even a worthwhile debate.

    • gryazi says:

      Stupidity is orthogonal to quantity.

  6. dasht says:

    I don't see the clip on-line in any obvious place but years ago there was a TV show hosted by Dean Martin whose public persona was that of the constantly buzzed drinker. It was a running joke for him (as younger folks today might not remember).

    A guest on one of his shows was a surprise visit by the recently elected governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who got one of his laugh lines by joshing that, sorry Dean, he already had someone in mind to head up the ABC.

    My how times have changed.

  7. latemodel says:

    How much does a ballot initiative cost in CA?

    You could call it the Efficient Government Initiative.

    • bifrosty2k says:

      I believe they figured out every one cost a few million dollars of the taxpayers money once it was on the ballot. Its probably more cost effective to sue the state...

      • latemodel says:

        That figure could well be correct, but what I want to know how much it costs to put the initiative on the ballot — collecting signatures, paying filing fees etc. The ballot system is pretty much set up to avoid any consideration of the state budgetary constraints, short- and/or long-term.

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