published Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Tennessee delays crackdown on infused alcohol

NASHVILLE -- Rest easy, Tennessee bartenders: A temporary resolution is in hand to the legal confusion over the infusion of fruit, vegetables, spices and more into cocktails.

Keith Bell, state Alcoholic Beverage Commission director, backed off Monday on his plans to crack down on restaurants' and bars' creative altering of alcohol, including vodka or bourbon, by infusing them with ingredients including bacon fat.

Citing his interpretation of a 2006 state law and a potential threat to health, Bell has said he intended to cite establishments engaging in homemade infusions in which ingredients are soaked over time in alcohol.

That threw restaurants, bars, the Tennessee Hospitality Association, attorneys and others into a tizzy. They argued the state was overreaching and misinterpreting state law. The brawl eventually drew in top officials in Gov. Bill Haslam's office.

But in a meeting Monday with Bell, two gubernatorial aides, the hospitality group, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., a state senator and others, the crackdown was shelved temporarily.

Bell later issued a statement saying the decision to back off -- for now -- was made to give everyone time to "formulate workable guidelines and definitions so as to gauge the growing and changing taste and desires of the consuming public."

He maintained that the process of manufacturing infused alcoholic beverages, not for the consumer's immediate consumption, remains a violation of state law and commission rules.

However, the TABC "nevertheless determined it to be in the public interest that the regulatory enforcement of this prohibition be indefinitely suspended."

The commission chief did not respond to requests for comment.

Butch Spyridon, president of the Convention and Visitors Corp., said last week a number of the bar and restaurant owners expressed concern about the interpretation of liquor laws involving infused beverages. Concerns came from artisan cocktail bars specializing in the exotic to other restaurants and bars offering everything from sangria, a wine punch that includes fruits, to margaritas dispensed through a machine.

"So we reached out to both the governor's office and the ABC [to say] could we meet to hear this out," Spyridon said. "To everybody's credit ... everybody was willing to meet and put some rational thinking into the thought process."

Everyone agreed there could be a resolution "if we have some time to work," Spyridon said. "And the ABC said so long as we're working on it, we can wait to enforce."

Businesses and their representatives have put together an ad hoc group to work with the commission and determine whether the issue can be cleared up by interpretation, new legislation or some other solutions, he said.

"But we all agree that times have changed from 40 years ago and we need to address [this] in a rational, intelligent manner," he said.

Some dispute Bell's interpretation of the 2006 law and Spyridon acknowledged as much.

"Awhile back he said this is going to cause a problem and he had one interpretation," he said.

Dan Haskell, general counsel and lobbyist for the Tennessee Hospitality Association, who also attended the meeting, said the parties agreed "we would work together to try to come to some conclusion by law or regulation about how to deal with this in the future."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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