Tennessee's war on infused spirits

Tennessee's war on infused spirits

June 22nd, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

Watch out, Tennesseans, the fun police are back, and this time they have their sights set on making sure that you won't be able to sit back and enjoy a house-infused liquor at your favorite restaurant or neighborhood bar.

Keith Bell, the newly minted director of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission, has misconstrued an esoteric 2006 law that requires a manufacturer's license to blend "nonalcoholic products with alcoholic beverages on premises," and decided to enforce it -- or, at least, what he thinks it means.

Even though the law was enacted to allow Jack Daniel's to manufacture premixed Lynchburg Lemonades and other drinks at the company's Lynchburg, Tenn., headquarters, Bell decided that the policy should be applied to prevent restaurants and bars from creating house-infused spirits.

Will Cheek, a Tennessee-based food and beverage law expert, told NewsChannel5 in Nashville that Bell was interpreting the law "to mean if you are a restaurant you can't put fruit in vodka and infuse the flavor. And we just think that's wrong." According to Cheek, the law was clearly not intended to ban restaurants from taking part in the popular infusion method.

That didn't stop Bell from issuing a gruff email declaring that, beginning July 1, TABC agents will begin issuing citations to bars and restaurants that infuse spirits by mixing fruits, vegetables and herbs in distilled alcohol "over an extended period of time."

If Bell goes through with the threat, infused vodka and whiskey -- and even house-made bitters and cordials -- will be a thing of the past in the Volunteer State.

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In recent years, infused spirits, such as watermelon vodka, mint rum and cucumber gin, have become popular at bars and restaurants throughout the country. The tasty trend has developed a foothold in Chattanooga, meaning a number of local bars and restaurants stand to suffer if the TABC carries out its absurd crackdown.

Easy Bistro & Bar in downtown Chattanooga, for example, has become known for infused drinks such as the "Jacqueline," which features house-infused strawberry vodka, and "Gin and Juice," a rhubarb-infused gin beverage.

Laura Kelton, Easy Bistro's bar manager, says that if the restaurant is forced to stop selling its infused spirits, business and creativity will suffer. "People come for our infusions," Kelton said. "A quarter of our cocktail list features infusions. ... It will take a lot of work to change [the cocktail menu]."

Easy Bistro has been in business eight years and, Kelton points out, infusions have been a staple of the restaurant's menu "since day one." Still, rather than disobey rules and amass fines, Easy Bistro plans to comply if the TABC goes forward with its senseless and draconian attack on infusions. But, Kelton notes, "It will challenge us."

Easy Bistro isn't alone in facing the wrath of the TABC. The bureaucracy's sudden persecution of bars and restaurants that infuse spirits in-house will impact Hennen's, The Blue Plate and The Foundry Lounge at The Chattanoogan hotel, as well a number of chain restaurants including Bonefish Grill, which features a house-infused pineapple vodka, and Tupelo Honey Café, which is scheduled to open this fall in Warehouse Row.

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Bell claims that his attack on infused spirits -- and the business owners that serve them -- is justified because "the TABC foresees potential public health and safety issues regarding the resulting infused alcoholic beverages" produced in bars and restaurants. That argument seems absurd given that the alcohol kills any bacteria produced by the fruits or vegetables used in the infusion.

Further, Bell points out, infused beverages are not served from an "original retail container." Wine, however, is allowed to be stored and served in containers other than its original bottle in Tennessee, and the practice has not resulted in a rash of deaths and disease.

For the sake of common sense -- not to mention the people who consume infused spirits and the businesses that sell them -- Bell should rethink his clumsy and heavy-handed application of the law. Tennesseans shouldn't be punished because the new TABC director wants to play dictator and flout his newfound authority.