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."