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Idaho's Infusion Confusion

ABC limits craft cocktail creativity at Boise Bars


Prohibition-era movies make it seem so glamorous. The coppers bust in and the band screeches to a halt, flappers fly off the dance floor and rum-runners scurry moonshine into the basement. But when Idaho's Alcohol Beverage Control raided Red Feather Lounge Jan. 30, it was much more bureaucratic.

"They took something like 17 bottles from us," explained co-owner Kevin Kelpe.

ABC busted Red Feather for something American craft cocktail bars have been practicing for more than a decade: infusing liquor.

"The trend for the last 10-15 years has been infused vodkas, and so our customers really want that. So it was mostly infused vodkas [that they confiscated]. Other things include syrups--we have a honey cordial that we use a lot and a ginger cordial that we use a lot. ... Because we have recipes for all those things right in the menu, they took them," said Kelpe.

ABC apprehended the infusions because of a long-standing but rarely enforced Idaho liquor law that sates: "It shall be unlawful for any licensee to sell, keep for sale, dispense, give away, or otherwise dispose of any liquor in the original containers or otherwise than by retail sale by the drink."

That means the current trends of infusing liquors, barrel-aging cocktails or concocting house-made cordials, are all illegal in the state of Idaho.

"Basically, the law is that you have to take the liquor from the bottle and put it in the drink and nothing can happen between then that requires us to hold it or change it," said Kelpe.

According to Lt. Robert Clements at the ABC, who retired this week and claimed no knowledge of this particular incident, these laws are in place to prevent establishments from altering the characteristics or potency of liquor sold by the drink.

"If they're doing an alcohol infusion, they're remanufacturing liquor, which would be illegal. ... If they're changing the characteristics, letting it re-ferment, introducing something into that bottle that's already processed and sold by that bottle, then they're changing the characteristics and pouring something else from that bottle than what they were selling or what was authorized," said Clements.

This law didn't completely surprise Kelpe.

"We sort of always had a suspicion because we're pretty familiar with the laws and we kind of knew that it was a gray area, at least, to be infusing liquor in the bottle and leaving it in the bottle," said Kelpe. "But we figured by putting it in the bottle and leaving the label on it, we were doing the best we could."

Red Feather wasn't the only downtown bar targeted Jan. 30. Mai Thai was also issued a couple of citations for its barrel-aging program, which Boise Weekly recently profiled.

"They cited a few citations from the state as to what we're in violation of, and now we're in the process of reviewing those citations and talking with our lawyer," said Mai Thai mixologist Michael Reed.

While ABC didn't seize any products from Mai Thai, the whole ordeal has other craft cocktail bars wringing their hands. Alavita, which also boasts a barrel-aged spirit program, has removed those drinks from its menu.

"They haven't confiscated our things yet, but we're anticipating they are just because they were going around town and taking all the infusions," said Alavita owner Cameron Lumsden. "We don't really know what to expect other than that."

Clements explained that the law is in place to protect consumers.

"We've had complaints of violations where people re-pour liquor. One of the examples is you might have Grey Goose vodka someone's selling and they're in fact pouring a cheaper Fleischmann's vodka in a Grey Goose bottle and re-pouring it that way and defrauding the customer and the state," said Clements.

But Reed isn't sold on the consumer-protection angle.

"States that are on the East and West coasts--which are predominately blue states, which means the consumer-protection advocates have a lot more influence and control in government than they do in states like Idaho--they're doing this in those states. They're doing barrel-aged programs, they're doing infusions, they're making their own vermouths and liqueurs and bitters," said Reed.

Oregon, which boasts a bounty of craft cocktail bars in Portland, takes a more relaxed approach than Idaho.

"We don't really have any rules in our books on specifically infusing spirits or barrel-aging spirits," said Kelly Routt, wholesale and manufacturer specialist at the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. "However, the federal government might have some issues on that. They don't allow bars to pour alcohol into another bottle and then serve from that bottle, but we don't take enforcement action on it and we don't have any specific rules on it."

Reed also contends that the argument that barrel-aging cocktails or infusing liquor might increase its alcohol content is bogus.

"That's interesting because that wouldn't happen," said Reed. "It's distilled spirits, so the alcohol content is going to be way too high for yeast fermentation to activate."

Lumsden agreed: "Infusions don't do anything to the cocktail, it actually makes a more consistent cocktail," he said. "It's not like it goes through a second fermentation and increases the alcohol content."

But Reed has another idea about why ABC is enforcing these laws now.

"The citations that they gave us, one says that we have to buy alcohol from the state and no other party, which is what we've done," Reed explained. "Everything we've been messing with has been stuff that we've purchased from the state, however, once we transfer it out of the bottle and move it to another container, the state no longer has that guarantee that we're only mixing from what we've purchased from the state, so there's a revenue interest at stake there, too."

Regardless of the rationale behind the enforcement, most agree the laws are outdated.

"They're just enforcing these laws that are kind of archaic and nobody that's in the industry for the last 10 years has really followed or known about," said Kelpe.

Reed said that a number of downtown bars are in the process of organizing a meeting to discuss the issue further and develop a strategy on how to get the laws revised.

"The bars are going to start meeting together and figuring out what we want to do because this is a serious detriment to future revenue for our industry," said Reed.