Thank you, California Governor Jerry Brown, for signing Senate Bill 32, introduced by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma) Wednesday before last. A grievous restriction has been removed: it is now legal for bartenders to infuse alcoholic beverages, known as “rectifying”.
A law has been on the books for decades restricting the alteration of alcohol in the bottle to manufacturers only. Before September 21, hard liquor sold in California could not be changed. Cocktails remained legal, because the unchanged spirit was poured into a new container, where the changes are visible to the customer. But if the staff tried to spiffy or speed up the mixing process by, say, throwing a few basil leaves into a bottle of gin to steep for a few hours, they’ve Judas Priest-broken the law.
This law was enforced by Alcohol Beverage Control, or ABC, which also checks for offenses like bugs in the sauce or swapping Grey Goose for Popov. ABC routinely makes surprise inspections to bars to make sure the beer taps are attached to the correct kegs, and shines lights in bottle to make sure nothing crawled through the spout and died inside—atrocities that have occurred more times than you want to think about at some popular Hollywood “clubs”.
In May of 2008, the following internal memo was sent to all state ABC agents:
INDUSTRY ADVISORY – Rectification of Distilled Spirits in On-Sale Premises
It has come to the attention of the Department that some on-sale licensees are exceeding their license privileges by engaging in rectification of distilled spirits in violation of Section 23355 of the Business and Professions Code.
Rectification is any process or procedure whereby distilled spirits are cut, blended, mixed or infused with any ingredient which reacts with the constituents of the distilled spirits and changes the character and nature or standards of identity of the distilled spirits. One example of rectification is, but not necessarily limited to, creating products such as “lemoncello” or “limoncello” in which sugar and citrus products are combined with vodka and stored, initiating a maturation process which consequently changes the character and nature of the vodka, and possibly its alcohol content.
The simple mixing of alcoholic beverages with other ingredients for immediate consumption is not considered rectification. If you have any questions regarding this advisory, please contact the Department’s Trade Enforcement Unit.
This memo was provided to me last summer by Will Salao, the District Administrator of the ABC LA/Metro District Office, who went on to say, “We are a complaint driven agency. We actively enforce all of our complaints. Do we look for [rectification]? It’s not our primary mission. [The] primary things we look for are sales to minors or disorderly premises.” He clarified the law by saying “If something is sitting around for a prolonged period of time that changes the make-up of that beverage, that could be considered rectification. As a normal citizen, I wouldn’t be able to identify it. That’s a trade enforcement violation…My suggestion to those bartenders [who rectify] is don’t do it.”
Once Erick Castro at San Francisco’s Rickhouse spent a night in jail ostensibly for homemade tinctures in early 2010, many California bartenders curtailed their creativity and avoided infusions. Rickhouse’s sister bar in SF, the fab fer reals former speakeasy Bourbon & Branch, which lies behind an “Anti-Saloon League” marquee, was also raided by ABC like a Prohibition movie. Although most of the sturm und drang raged in NorCal, when SoCal’s Marcos Tello was consulting for the beverage menu at First & Hope he kiboshed his ideas for tinctures and included a special staff lesson on how to react to an ABC surprise. Ryan Green and Matthew Biancaniello survived a panic attack during a surprise inspection at the Library Bar. Regular fans of this favorite Hollywood watering hole may have noticed that the bottles with hand-written labels like “Ham & Rye” were hidden away within days of their ABC check-up (they weren’t busted).
Many other local bartenders also had to sequester their alchemical artistry from the menu and shelves or risk severe fines, ranging from $750 to $3,000 for a first time violation. Plus, the liquor is confiscated and must then be reordered, which adds to the misery. An upmarket bar-restaurant in Century City, after hiring a new mixologist from Texas who was unaware of the law, suffered a hit of roughly $7,500 from ABC. Seven Grand resorted to a whisper campaign regarding their rectification experiments. One bartender in a very swank but cozy establishment was afraid to marry bottles of the same product, e.g., half of Plymouth gin with another Plymouth to save precious shelf space.
Surprisingly sangria, which is also a product of rectification, was left in legal limbo, dependent on how long the fruit steeped in wine.
Chris Albrecht, Deputy Chief in charge of headquarters operations at ABC told me last summer that “No arrests have been made related to infusions, nor any formal disciplinary action against a licensee for infusion-based activity. We did have a couple of cases where other activities were taking place. This may have been a small part of an investigation, or something an investigator looked at while on the premises. Our department has not participated in any investigation that led to an arrest or disciplinary action for infusion-type activity.”
However, he added “Occasionally we have an assertive, vigilant ABC investigator who takes action that may be beyond what it expected from the department’s enforcement perspective, but those cases are handled as they are.”
Castro and other bartenders wouldn’t go on record detailing his arrest, though one anonymous source said the charges were dismissed by the judge, possibly because the judicial system gets through their nights via those same infusions created in the city by the Bay. But even if Castro’s holiday in the pokey was completely unrelated to rectification, the damage was done. Months of rumors and half-truths spooked the cocktail community like London fog during the Whitechapel murders. I was working on a HUGE expose article on the absurd illegality committed by our best drink-makers, but didn’t finish the piece due to laziness, busy-ness, and/or drunkenness.
Fortunately, many petition signers, Senator Leno, Governor Brown, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, California Chamber of Commerce, Family Winemakers of California, California Music and Culture Association, California Restaurant Association, San Francisco Small Business Commission, Small Business California and numerous small businesses and the state legislature—which voted unanimously for S.B. 32—turned my shock-treatment jeremiad into this happy ending essay you read now.
“This bill [S.B. 32] would exclude from the definition of “rectifier” any on-sale licensee that colors, flavors, or blends distilled spirits or wine products on the licensed premises for consumption on those premises.” For the complete 378 words of the bill, click here.
Why this is important to imbibers in the Golden State: creative bartenders can now indulge our libations with California’s bountiful agriculture without fear of reprisal. Look for seasonal and even late-seasonal cocktails, as infusing preserves the taste of crops weeks after the harvest. Expect an explosive array of liquor options from your favorite barkeep, who can now play with flavors as unfettered as our chefs. Go ahead and visit them tonight and see what they’ve been rectifying behind the stick for months but couldn’t talk about—Senate Bill 32 had an urgency clause attached, so it went into effect last week.