At an innovative and acclaimed restaurant near you there is a jar of house-made brandied cherries at a dessert chef's prep station which are used to create a delicious chocolate-cherry bread pudding. Ten feet away on the restaurant's bar is a similar container of brandy with cherries in it. That bottle is intended for the dessert's companion cocktail. Between the two stands the bar manager – but not the pastry chef – being cited for violation of California law.
The scene is fictional, so far, but the legal discrepancy is all too real. In the state of California the health and safety of the public as it relates to booze is the charter of the department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. By their definition – as issued in a May 2008 industry advisory, which was largely ignored – the process of changing the character of an alcoholic beverage through maturation, as in the case of the cherries sitting in the brandy, or fermentation, potentially by something like adding citrus and sugar to vodka to create limoncello, is considered “rectification” and as such is not permitted without a Rectifier’s license. Here’s the catch: no one who serves these beverages is allowed to get one.
What could this mean legally? According to the ABC, no bar would be permitted to do anything but “the simple mixing of alcoholic beverages with other ingredients for immediate consumption.” For fans of infused spirits, classic cocktails, or the current bartending renaissance in general, it’s as if all a foodie’s favorite restaurants were told they could only serve raw food. Salad and sushi are nice and all, but some of us would like a broader spectrum of choices. For once the vodka advocates and the artisanal cocktail snobs are marching arm in arm together in indignation.
However, once you dig deeper than the ABC’s own statements the situation is clearly more complex than it has been painted. According to the statutory definition in section 23016 of the California Business and Professions Code, a “’Rectifier’ means every person who colors, flavors, or otherwise processes distilled spirits by distillation, blending, percolating, or other processes.” There is no reference to any exemption for immediate consumption. Without that exception, unless this section is understood to refer only to those who rectify for the purpose of resale not for the purpose of consumption, then all cocktail making is illegal. Without that exception and unless it only applies to rectifying for resale, anyone who blends distilled spirits is rectifying and must be therefore be licensed, but as other parts of the law clearly state (see tied house laws like sections 23368, 25500 and 25505) those who serve can’t be rectifiers. Clearly that over-reaching result was not the intent or the state would never get any revenue from cocktail bar liquor licenses. Rectification regulations must refer to the act of rectifying for resale and not to bar service, but the legal challenges to defend this position and remove the ABC’s “immediate consumption” interpretation have not yet taken place.
For the moment we are left with the ABC’s current “loophole” of immediacy and its side effect of chilling legitimate, long-time bar practices that have not been demonstrated to pose a public health risk. From its beginnings the craft of good bartending has included knowledge of spirits, responsible hospitality, and a prodigious memory for recipes, but it has also called for a deep understanding of all the ingredients of a good drink and the ability to create variations on them. That the exercise of this knowledge results in exceptional experiences is a matter of ample evidence; just look at any recent list of not-to-be-missed intoxicating beverages in our fair city and you’ll find examples which are prohibited under the current state interpretation of the law because of their extremely local, hand-crafted ingredients. This despite the probability that those bartenders most likely to be crafting such things are also those most likely to be following the precepts of a San Francisco bartender of over 100 years ago, the honorable William “Cocktail” Boothby, whose Ten Commandments for mixologists included “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Not bad for a guy working in the late 1800s. Combine his philosophy of care toward your bar’s patrons with modern knowledge of health and safety practices and you’ll find Bay Area bartenders producing safe ingredients to support the ‘quality over quantity’ drinking style they encourage and which in a sane world one would expect to see supported by those intending to protect the public from abuses of alcoholic beverages.
So what to do to solve this problem? As ever, drink responsibly and speak out in favor of businesses, organizations, and laws promoting safe fun. While you can, enjoy the most creative creations of our city’s talented bartenders and brace yourself for the possibility of a stretch of simpler drinks while we wait for the legal wrangling to resolve itself into better policies.
There is a merciful exception to all this hard liquor news; bitters – crucial ingredient of many fine drinks – from what we can see, are not subject to this prohibition. According to the state Board of Equalization, who managed alcoholic beverage matters prior to the creation of the ABC in 1955, “Angostura bitters used as flavoring is too concentrated to be fit for consumption as a beverage. As such, Angostura bitters is not ‘fit for beverage purposes’ under the definition of an alcoholic beverage.” It seems unlikely that other bitters – be they Abbott’s, orange, or chocolate-chili – would be treated any differently. So take heart, cocktailians, all those former infused vodka drinkers are going to be searching for a new taste sensation. Should we tell them that the trendy “new” recipe they’re sipping had its origins in San Francisco a century ago? Shhh, no need to rectify that mistake.