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California’s Ban On Alcohol Infusion Lifted

California Governor Jerry Brown affixed his signature on Senate Bill 32, a law which revised one of the statutes of California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, California’s Business and Professions Code.

The code’s statute allowed restaurants and bars to muddle and mix drinks and serve them immediately to customers, but prohibits them to engage in any form of “rectification.” Rectification, as ABC defines it, is “any procedure or process where distilled spirits are blended, cut, infused or mixed with ingredients that reacts with the distilled spirits’ constituents and in effect, changes it nature and character or standards of identity.” Industry players commonly call this process alcohol infusion.

Anyone who alters alcohol—infusing it with flavors, fruits, vegetables and spices—was known to be breaking the law. Over a year ago, Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco was reprimanded by the ABC’s agents for offering a cocktail specialty called Clermont Affair, a blend of pear-infused Old Overholt whiskey, barrel-aged bitters, liquor called Amaro Nonino, and homemade tincture of cloves.

The ban also included homemade syrups, bitters, tinctures and liqueurs like limoncello. Although the prohibition had real good intentions, protecting consumers and making sure that they know what they are getting, its ratification was widely frowned upon.

The repealing law, Senate Bill 32, was introduced by District of San Francisco’s Sen. Mark Leno, and was widely supported by many small businesses and trade groups in the state, including The Golden Gate Restaurant Association and the California Restaurant Association.

“I am happy that the Governor identified the need to bring to date such an unnecessary law that has put off California from creating infused drinks for their customers,” Leno said. “The regulation does not in anyway help in allowing California restaurants to battle today’s difficult economy.”

And restaurants are as ecstatic that the Leno bill was passed. “The amendment of the regulation now allows us bartenders to enhance our existing products and have a broader reign in experimenting and in trying out new combinations and flavors,” said Josh Perry, bar manager of Oakland’s Pican. Perry also said that the law against infusions, although understandably aimed at protecting the consumers, not only dampened their spirits, but also reduced their sales.

At the time that the ban was enforced, the restaurant and bar industry felt that “ABC has misread the rules and has made an empty distinction between cocktails that just sit for a few minutes and those that had been prepared for hours.” Many insist that infusions that make use of everyday food ingredients do not pose any special risk to customers at all.

“I can’t really say that the move decelerated our sales; it felt more like a harassment,” said Pete Gowdy, bar manager at Bottle Cap in San Francisco. “Now that our barrel-aged Vieux Carre is legal, we can once again put it in our menus and quality table tents and easily serve it to our customers.”

Vieux Carre cocktail is a traditional beverage which originated in New Orleans. It is created with equal parts of brandy, rye whiskey, Benedictine liqueur, sweet vermouth and bitters. “We intend to come up with one new cocktail every month and highlight it in our menus and table tents, as we make it a foundation of our bar program, now that the ban has been lifted,” said Gowdy.