Alcohol regulators in California don't seem to understand the process of infusing spirits with flavors like orange or vanilla. So naturally, they're prohibiting that which they don't understand, invoking a ban on on-site distilling that really has nothing to do with the infusion process.
The state of California has suddenly started issuing warnings to bars and restaurants prohibiting them from "infusing" liquors such as vodka with herbs or fruits—a popular and widespread practice. But the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Department has no clear explanation for why it has targeted several establishments in the San Francisco Bay Area in recent weeks. And it can't, or won't, definitively answer the fundamental question of why it's illegal in the first place to make infusions without having a special license.
In fact, the law under which the warnings were issued doesn't have anything to say about infusion, but rather seems aimed at preventing bars from making their own hooch, creating dangerous brews, or adulterating liquor to increase its alcohol content.
"It's totally insane," said Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, which happens to be headquartered in the Bay Area. "I'd never heard of such a thing. It baffles me beyond my wildest dreams."
Chris Albrecht, an ABCD deputy division chief, said that despite the enforcement actions, the department "does not consider this a priority." The warnings, he said, were issued to a few establishments where enforcement agents showed up in response to unrelated complaints. Agents saw that infused drinks were being offered for sale, issued the warnings, and, in at least one case, asked an employee to pour the illicit concoctions down the drain, Albrecht said.
State alcohol regulators have to be among the most petty and arbitrary bureaucrats in government. Witness my state of Virginia, where they recently resurrected a Prohibition-era law to arrest a bartender for serving sangria (the state legislature had to pass a bill legalizing sangria and martinis), and went after my favorite bar a couple years ago for serving delicious frozen beer on a stick.
Somewhat related: How to make bacon-infused bourbon.