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Cocktails Cops Can't Resist

Bartenders revive classic cocktails. The law responds by reviving classic crackdowns.

Katherine Mangu-Ward
April 2, 2010

Beat a raw egg white into a citrusy cocktail and you get a meringue-like effect, frothy and delicious. The resulting beverage—technically classified as a flip or fizz—is irresistible, not only to the connoisseurs who are fueling America’s cocktail renaissance but also to the food cops.

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."

The law is a Prohibition Era rule that was designed to keep bartenders from adulterating booze with dangerous additives like methyl alcohol. These days, you're more likely to find bars stocked with clove oil or lemongrass syrup than rotgut with the power to make you go blind. But that hasn't stopped the state from indulging in all manner of old style busts. They've even expanded this retro revenue raising technique to include a hit on the city's swank University Club for serving drinks to non-members.

On January 19, 2010 one of New York's cocktail hot spots, the Pegu Club, got in trouble with city health department officials for serving up a modern variant on the fizz. Despite warnings printed on the menu, and raw egg white listed in the ingredients, a health inspector busted a bartender for failing to orally inform a customer of the risky ingredient. Pegu Club had to yank the Earl Grey MarTEAni from the menu, restoring it only after the health department backed off serious penalties and a court summons.

[Click below to watch Reason.tv's "Cocktail Shakedown: The New War Against Classic Mixed Drinks." Story continues after the video.]

[For Thrasher's drink recipe, visit Reason.tv.]

Thrasher, the brains behind the booze at Alexandria, Virginia's PX Lounge and several other related venues, uses homemade bitters the way a chef uses herbs, he says. And many of his drinks involve egg whites. (He sources the eggs from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, the self-proclaimed “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic” and the proprietor of Polyface Farms, who has been mentioned in Reason more than once.) "I'm not 100 percent sure what the law is in Virginia," says Thrasher, who spoke with Reason.com and Reason.tv before setting out for New Zealand to become a world champion. "I'd like to think I'm not breaking a law." While he hasn't had trouble with the state of Virginia yet, it may only be a matter of time, since Virginia isn't exactly known for its enlightened liquor policies.

If the cops insist on going retro, barflies are more than happy to keep up with them. Thrasher calls his bar, semi-hidden on the second floor of another restaurant, a speakeasy. That wasn't the initial intent, but customers liked the clandestine aspect, the press picked up on it, and he decided not to bother to put up a sign outside. Maybe Thrasher's customers—already taking their lives in their hands with homebrew bitters and egg-laced beverages—like the idea of having their fizzes and flips with a dash of danger. If so, Virgina's alcohol control board may be all too happy to oblige.

For now, Thrasher is lighthearted about possibly skirting the law. As he drizzles homemade lemon-pepper syrup on the top of a pisco cocktail fizzing with egg, he jokes, "I'm just waiting for the coppers to bust through any second."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Katherine Mangu-Ward is Managing Editor, Reason


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