State Cracks Down on Infused Vodkas, Then Suspends Enforcement 'Indefinitely'

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There sure was a lot of uproar about the announcement that the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission would begin to enforce its interpretation of a 2006 regulation that prohibits anyone without a distilling license from adding flavors to alcohol, such as the infused spirits that many local establishments create to use in some of their specialty drinks.

As Bites' colleague at the Nashville Post, William Williams, reported Friday, the Tennessee Hospitality Association, which represents restaurants and bars, contacted the state to voice its concerns about the crackdown. Some legal observers expressed doubt that the law even applies to restaurants and bars.

Rob Pinson, a member at the law firm Bone McAllester Norton, told Williams, “I see where the director [of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission] is coming from in the strictest sense,” he said. “But the law itself is within a section of the broader law that applies to manufacturers, wholesalers and liquor stores.”

On Monday, the commission announced it was suspending enforcement indefinitely while details of enforcement — and perhaps even a reversal of the law — are considered.

In a statement, TABC Commissioner Keith Bell said: “Although the process of manufacturing infused alcoholic beverages, not for the consumer’s immediate consumption, by and on the premises of a Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) licensee’s on premises liquor by the drink restaurant remain violations of the Tennessee Code and TABC Rules, the TABC has nevertheless determined it to be in the public interest that the regulatory enforcement of this prohibition be indefinitely suspended in order to formulate workable guidelines and definitions so as to gauge the growing and changing taste and desires of the consuming public.”

It appears that the controversy is behind us for now, but who knows if it will come up again if the TABC and legislators don't take action to clarify or reverse the regulation.

The strict enforcement could have been a blow to Nashville's cocktail scene. Think of all the various infused vodkas at Past Perfect or the house-flavored moonshines at Bootleggers on Lower Broad. While as far as I know there has never been a health complaint in town arising from one of these infused liquors, I have blamed the pineapple vodka at Red Door in Midtown for some pretty vicious headaches the next day.

Just take a look at the flavored vodka shelves (not shelf!) at any of the larger liquor stores and you'll recognize the popularity of these sort of spirits. But if that's not enough to get you thinking about what this new predicament might have meant at your favorite local watering hole, consider some of the other ramifications that could have arisen from the situation. First of all, a strict interpretation of this regulation would also prevent adding pre-made flavor mixes to alcohol in those frozen drink machines that are so popular in sports bars and Mexican restaurants.

"But Chris, I don't drink those crappy brain-freeze specials," you might be thinking. Well, think a little bit about how long it would take to get your favorite top shelf margarita if the bartender had to make an entire tray of frozen margaritas ("lime on top/mango on the bottom") one blender load at a time for a sorority who happened to get their order in before yours. And everybody knows that sangria tastes better if it's pre-made the night before and allowed to steep in the fridge.

Or without all the brahs contributing $6.25 of profit per $7 frozen Bushwhacker, your bartender buddy would have to find some other way to keep the joint afloat, and that might mean a few less buy-backs for you and your friends.

Taken to the extreme, I could see how this regulation could also have banned all those house-made bitters that both mixologists and fans of upscale cocktail culture are so obsessed about lately. While there are plenty of great bitters available commercially from regular channels, custom bitters and tinctures are an important bullet in the bartender's bandolier. I'd hate to see that taken away from them.

The relationship between the legislature and regulatory agencies is always difficult to figure out in this state. But in this case it appears that both sides understood where the interests of businesses, consumers and health concerns intersected and made a logical decision about the issue. Hopefully this might be the start of a trend!

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