This article is courtesy of Attorney Michael Volz. It’s important to note that this blog post is for general information purposes only, is not intended to be legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship results from it. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice.
Are Craft Bartending Techniques Illegal?
In some states, the answer is yes.
Tennessee previously cracked down on house-infused spirits, Illinois and California all but prohibited barrel-aged and batched cocktails, and other states are having similar regulation issues.
Why? Because some states (especially control ones) require liquor to be poured straight from the original bottle for drink service. This is just one way that Alcoholic Beverage Control (“ABC”) Boards attempt to stop the sale of unauthorized liquor.
Does My Local ABC Board Regulate This?
Maybe. The law is quickly evolving in some states to allow for these techniques, but the process can be slow. Please confirm with your local ABC Board.
How Can I Get Around Restrictive Regulations?
First, an ABC Board’s jurisdiction will typically begin, and end, with alcohol. This means, if a bartender can find a home for any of these techniques in a non-alcoholic drink ingredient, they’ll have their loophole. Second, certain methods and tools can be used to obtain the same result, but in a much shorter time-frame.
Enter: shrubs and house-made simple syrups. Shrubs and house-made simple syrups are both great alternatives for infusions, because they don’t contain alcohol and are therefore are typically outside the jurisdiction of ABC Boards. The, unfortunate, double-edged sword is that the end infusion will lack alcohol-soluble flavors.
Look to: the standard whipped cream charger. A few minutes in a charged whipped cream canister, and the added pressure can replicate weeks of time spent aging or infusing. Gizmodo has a few great guides for this process. See infusions & barrel-aging. While this method won’t produce the same flavor as a 55-gallon charred-oak barrel, it can still rapidly age or infuse any drink. In-fact, Bittermens will test-run new bitters recipes with this method.
*Be careful If you plan use this method and store the cocktail for later service. Storing it could make it just as illegal as regular infusions or barrel-aging. The best practice is to serve the cocktail immediately after it has been fully charged and infused (~2-3 minutes).
Not Kool-Aid, but dried and ground fruit powders can be stirred into drinks, like sugar, as a quick infusion. The change of the surface-to-mass ratio of the fruit makes this happen almost instantly. The added benefit is that there is no loss of alcohol-soluble flavors.
Some states, like Virginia, have taken notice and changed their regulations to allow for these new techniques. However, other states won’t follow suit unless people start making noise. Don’t hesitate to write to your legislators and ask your local ABC Board.
At the end of the day, the potential fine isn’t worth the risk. There are plenty of techniques out there for any bartender or bar-owner to navigate this legal minefield without putting themselves at risk of a fine, or a liquor license suspension.