Alcohol

Cocktails Cops Can't Resist

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

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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.

NEXT: Don't Put Disadvantaged Shrimps on the Barbie (Or Something)

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  1. “. But a Do-It-Yourself booze ethic has long made America’s alcohol cops nervous.”

    It also makes people who don’t like going blind or getting alcohol poisoning or getting run over by some drunk nervous.

    1. Piss off, bitch.

      1. Scotch came to from a PGA punch black-out getting tea-bagged by a frat brother. He sobs uncontrollably when he sees a picture of Sarah Palin.

      2. Thanks, Pip. Your response was more satisfactory and eloquent than mine below.

        Suspect that the actual goal of the Scotch Hamilton (fka DanT) poster is time-wasting.

    2. What kind of example are you setting for the children with the name of “Scotch”?

    3. Yes, we’re much better drinking a perfectly legal spirit like Everclear.

      1. Got a bottle of 190 proof Everclear sitting right here, it’s great for toothache, headache, nutache, or whatever may ail you.

        Fortunately, I live in a state where the real thing, 190 proof Everclear is perfectly legal to sell.

        The 190-proof variety is not legal to sell in California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.

        1. All enlightened liberal bastions…

        2. Everclear 190 can be purchased in Ohio provided one signs a “declaration of intent” essentially stating one will not allow it to be drunk straight. (My wife purchased some to make perfumes.)

    4. My employer would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Scott Hamilton for destroying any and all value that can be had from engaging in conversation on Hit and Run.

    5. Getting run over by some drunk? That’s a total non-sequitur. How would the home-made-ness of a liquor have any effect on incapacitation? You’re on Reason: learn to use it.

        1. Gods yes, thanks.

        2. Gods yes, thanks.

          1. I’ll have a double, as well.

    6. There is a danger in making spritz. Beer and wine contain a small amount of methyl alcohol, also known as gas line antifreeze and cook stove fuel. It is a harmless amount in beer and wine but when distilled at the wrong temperature a lethal amount of methyl alchol can be produced. This is the fear anyways what the actual risks are I’m not sure. If anyone has some studies on the matter I would be very interested.

      1. Actually if there ever was a real danger it is likely that this was during prohibition when car radiators were used and people got lead poisoning.

    7. What, exactly, in this article made you draw that conclusion, Scotch?

      Oh, and do piss off.

  2. On the other hand, Scotch, it also makes your drivel slightly less obnoxious. Very slightly.

  3. 1) How does DIY booze create more pedestrian deaths at the hands of drunk drivers? Please provide statistics on alcohol-related fatalities and injuries that specifically link to the origin (commercial vs DIY) of the alcohol. Also discuss consumption patterns of DIY vs commercially produced alcohol with specific attention to whether DIY alcohol is more likely to be consumed in a home setting by people who remain in their homes until sober.

    2) Please produce statistics on alcohol-related blindness with specific attention to the type of alcohol beverage (beer, wine, distilled spirits) causing the blindness. This essay will include a specific discussion of clear versus colored moonshine whiskey.

    3) How is DIY booze more likely to cause alcohol poisoning? Please focus on the causal factors rather than covariance.

    As always, show your work, including all notes, worksheets for your calculations. Extensive and specific references are also expected.

    1. Fortunately, the government regulates alcohol so these things no longer are a real concern.

      Remember, it’s libertopia where anybody can sell anything without consequence.

      1. New Zealand has home distillation of alcohol, and society hasn’t collapsed.

        But since you’re just a griefing asshole, you probably know that anyway.

      2. Government has been raising taxes to stratospheric levels on booze, thus encouraging private production to avoid those taxes. How does that advance your thesis?

        1. Scotch got raped by his cocker spaniel when he passed out on home-made Zima. Deeply personal issue for him, mmm-kay?

      3. But government regulation creates a black market where all of these things do go on (as would be evident if you RTFA), but in which the heavy hand of the state prevents people from using the ordinary recourse of tort settlement to pursue any injury, therefore exacerbating the chances of the injuries you mention occuring and further denying them the ability to recover from them, thus making those problems a real concern… you jackass.

    2. Tonio, you deserve and are hereby getting some awesome Good Friday props.

      Did I tell you that I like your post?

      1. Glad you cleared that up at the end; I thought Good Friday props were thorns, nails and wood.

        1. Dice and a side-piercin’ sword also come in handy.

          1. Don’t forget 30 pieces of silver. Especially at today’s prices.

            1. Throw in a gin fizz and you’ve got yourself a hell of a Friday night.

            2. Today’s prices?
              You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

  4. …a health inspector busted a bartender for failing to orally…

    That setup really didn’t pay off.

  5. [From the homepage:] Bartenders revive classic cocktails. The law responds by reviving classic crackdowns.

    I’d prefer it if someone revived Classic Concentration.

  6. You ever notice that Reason staff are always “investigating” things like drugs, booze and hookers?
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

    1. But I’m pretty sure that if Khubla Khan ever does a mighty pleasure dome decree, Reason will send a correspondent to check it out.

  7. Corpse Reviver

    1 part Gin
    1 part Triple Sec
    1 part Lillet Blanc
    1 part Lemon juice

    Skake vigorously with ice and strain into martini glass. It can also be made in bulk and mixed 50/50 with club soda over ice for a refreshing summer cooler.

    1. Sugar Free, I have duly noted your recipe and will try it this summer.

      What about this Lillet Blanc? My French is shaky…is it a white wine type of thing?

      1. It’s a French aperitif wine. Look for it near the vermouth in any well-stocked liquor store.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lillet

        1. Also used in the original James Bond martini, the Vesper. Although the Lillet available today is not quite the same as the Kina Lillet back then.

          3 measures of gin
          1 measure of vodka
          1/2 measure of Kina Lillet

          Shake with ice, serve with a lemon twist.

          1. Adding a few dashes of bitters supposedly gets close to the taste of Kina.

            1. Also, make sure you use 100 proof spirits. Fleming didn’t fuck around, and neither should you.

            2. I’ve tried using quinine powder, but it doesn’t dissolve well in a cold drink.

              1. You may be able to dissolve it in the Lilit Blanc (just print your own “Kina” label) before chilling.

  8. A couple of those and I’d “Skake vigorously” ?

    1. Skaking of distilled spirits should be illegal.

      1. Your mother’s a whore, Paul.

        1. Only where it’s legal.

  9. “It’s a free country, brother…”

    Words you never hear anymore.

  10. It also makes people who don’t like going blind or getting alcohol poisoning or getting run over by some drunk nervous.

    Right, because all of these places are making their DIY drinks out of wood alcohol.

    Right, like alcohol poisoning only occurs with people who drink these artisan cocktails.

    Right, like without these DIY/artisan cocktails, drunk driving would be all but eliminated.

    You can’t be this dumb, Scotch. Ya just can’t be…

  11. Aviation Cocktail

    2 oz. Gin
    1 oz. Lemon juice
    1/2 oz. Maraschino liqueur

    Shake vigorously with ice and strain into martini glass. Garish with a cherry.

    1. This is one of my favorites. I add a bit of Creme de Violette as well.

      1. I only omit it because it would take drinking 10 Aviations to use up a bottle.

        1. “100 Aviations”

          Sigh.

          1. Damn, I was gonna do the “garish” thing…

    2. I only garish drinks that are skaken.

      1. I can’t type today. I wish it was because I’m drunk, but I don’t have even that going for me.

  12. Okay, this is the second time I’ve read something about flips this week, so I ask a question to all of you mixologists out there: isn’t a flip by definition a drink where you stick a hot poker in it? Neither KMW’s description above nor the flip recipe I read earlier (courtesy of North Shore Distillery) involves caramelizing it with a hot poker. Am I wrong about flips or is this just another example of a drink evolving beyond its original definition (like the martini)?

    1. Originally, yes, you warmed it with a hot poker (beer, rum and sugar) but it eventually evolved into just about any cocktail frothed with an egg that doesn’t contain cream.

      1. That’s what I suspected. I read something a few months back about a bar that actually had an electrical poker (seriously; I have no idea where you buy one of those) for making old-school flips. That would be pretty sweet to try out.

        1. I have no idea where you buy one of those

          East Berlin had a big sale after the Wall fell.

  13. You know what I hate about the recent resurgence of cocktails? People who call anything they pour into a martini glass a martini. A martini is gin, vermouth and an olive. If you make it with vodka, it is called a vodka martini. If you make it with any non-neutral spirit or liqueur, it is not any kind of martini.

    1. Words of wisdom.

    2. I’ve heard it said (and myself believe) that the number of olives in a martini should be an odd number– 1, 3, or even 5, but never 2 or 4. Confirm/Deny?

      1. The olives should be served on the side. I know this is heresy, but their salty oiliness taints the purity of the Martini. Try it next time you make one.

        1. But I like my martinis impure. I usually pop extra olives on the side anyway.

    3. The recent resurgence in “craft” cocktails is very much a reaction to the choco-, apple-, whatever-tini trend.

  14. Raw eggs create some of the nastiest smelling farts in existence. And I’m speaking as someone who lives in the reigning American city of breakfast tacos.

    1. That’s the thing that stinks least about San Antonio.

  15. SugarFree, got any recipes for a bottle of Tanqueray spiked with a bag of redhots (stupid niece)?

    1. Ugh.

      Cinnamon in stick form and sugar is part of making Sloe Gin. I don’t suppose you have access to a sloe berry bush?

      Failing that, I’d keep it in the freezer and use it for “I dare you” shots.

      1. Funny you mention that. Her father is my bro-law who grows his own grapes and berries and a lot of other things (figs off of the tree are incredible). I don’t know about sloe berry bushes but if anyone has one or two in my area, it would be him.

        And, yeah, it makes a good ‘dare you’ drink. I tried a shot last night. Seems quite concentrated in the cinnamon.

    2. Throw in some cloves and mace to steep, then mix it with cider come fall?

      Of course, that’s probably illegal.

  16. This post and thread just screams “cosmotarian”.

    1. At least it isn’t screaming “cosmopolitan”.

  17. I wish I could get tonic water with the amount of quinine in it the British East India Company used

  18. As I understand it salmonella can be in raw egg yolks but not the whites and i have never heard of egg white or meringue not used in food. Raw egg yolk can be a problem however and should be cooked, if a recipe calls for raw egg yolk and milk combine and scald milk to 180 degrees F. Pasteurized eggs are sold at most supermarkets.

    1. I thought the whole article was going to be about the safety of using raw eggs. Thank God it was just another Meth(yl Alcohol) Scare.

      I went through an ancient paperback of old school cocktail recipes when i turned 21. Egg fizzes were some of the 1st things i tried. Not something I like to have more than 1 of….but neat.

      1. Actually, it’s the whites that are most susceptible to Salmonella, according to Incredibleegg.org. Even so, the risk is very low (0.005% of eggs contaminated), especially if the eggs have been kept properly cool, etc.
        If you have the self-discipline to limit your consumption of flips and fizzes to only a thousand per year, you’ll probably get a little salmonella incident only once or twice in your life.

  19. 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?

    I remain unimpressed by chefs and bartenders who think its “innovative” to act like a pothead with the munchies combining the last few items in the cupboard because he forgot to go shopping.

    Smoked Oysters and a can of Mandarin oranges?! They’ll pay $100/plate for it in NY City!!!

    I recommend pairing it with the Prune Juice and Condensed Milk aperitif.

  20. I got plastered on Shirley Temples. What’s this discussion about?

  21. because I thought you drank Roy Rogers

  22. A cadre of elite mixologists (or bartenders, as Thrasher prefers to be called) in New York, Portland, San Francisco, D.C.

    Please. Boston is, and remains the capital of elite cocktails. Chicago is very good as well. D.C. is still the provinces. Check out this site – drinkboston.com

  23. Yes, you lived, and to tell about it, Katherine Mangu-Ward. Living dangerously is fun. Living dangerously isn’t that dangerous compared to other approaches such as trusting those corrupted by power to look out for your safety.

    May you live long and dangerously, Katherine Mangu-Ward. May you all live long and dangerously!

    Long live living dangerously!

    It’s better to live one day as a lion than a million years as a slimey Earth hugging slug. Even if your life is short at least you lived wile you had the chance.

  24. These buracratic knuckle-heads need to be told to “. . . go play in the traffic.”

  25. Everything old is new again.

    Someone want to start a betting pool for how long before Prohibition makes a comeback?

  26. Got a bottle of 190 proof Everclear sitting right here, it’s great for toothache, headache, nutache, or whatever may ail you.

    Fortunately, I live in a state where the real thing, 190 proof Everclear is perfectly legal to sell.

    The 190-proof variety is not legal to sell in California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.

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  33. Beer and wine possess a small amount of methyl alcohol, also known as fuel line antifreeze along with cook oven fuel. It is just a harmless quantity in ale and wine beverage but when distilled at the wrong temp a dangerous amount of methyl alchol can be done. This is the fear anyways what are the actual hazards are I am not sure. If any person has several studies around the matter I might be quite interested.

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  35. This is the fear anyways what are the actual hazards are I am not sure. If any person has several studies around the matter I might be quite interested.

  36. This is the fear anyways what are the actual hazards are I am not sure. If any person has several studies around the matter I might be quite interested.

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