On Monday, Virginia bartender Todd Thrasher helped Team USA win the Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand. (His winning cocktail involved artichoke aperitif, lime thyme syrup, and apple bitters. Suddenly those great mojitos you make don’t seem so impressive, do they?) But when the sultan of swizzle sticks returns victorious to our shores, he won’t find an entirely welcoming climate for his craft in the country that invented the word cocktail.
In case you’ve been sitting in a dark room somewhere sucking down rum and Diet Cokes, America is in the midst of a cocktail renaissance. A cadre of elite mixologists (or bartenders, as Thrasher prefers to be called) in New York, Portland, San Francisco, D.C., and other creative-class cities is bringing back classics and offering new twists on retro techniques. Meanwhile, alarmed by all this creativity and innovation, retrograde health inspectors and bureaucrats are cracking down on innovation from coast to coast.
Reviving old recipes means finding rare spirits, bitters, liqueurs—or making them from scratch. But a Do-It-Yourself booze ethic has long made America’s alcohol cops nervous. Today’s state-level alcohol control boards are often the same bodies created during Prohibition to bust up stills and snag rumrunners, and they appear to be taking their heritage seriously these days.
Several San Francisco bars ran afoul of regulations by having the audacity to make their own bitters, once considered the vital ingredient that distinguished a cocktail from a plain old mixed drink. Bartender Neyah White found the fruits of a longstanding project to replace all of the store-bought cocktail components in his bar with homemade versions imperiled, as alcohol control agents demanded that months of work on bitters and other infused liquors be poured out.
The language in the relevant section of the California code suggests mixing drinks is legit, but any other tampering with liquor is bound to get you in trouble; don’t even think about steeping, infusing, or otherwise indulging in forbidden “rectification”—which the agency defines as “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.”
It’s nice to see Reason take a break from attacks on religion to expose government tomfoolery.
Equally reassuring that California can spare $$$ from its bare coffers for raids to enforce arcane regulations.