Cocktail lovers are urging Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a law that would permit bartenders to pour drinks that include "infused" alcohol – booze steeped with fruit, vegetables or herbs to pack an extra kick.
Such drinks are all the rage at high-end watering holes across the state. The Shady Lady in Sacramento serves an $8 cocktail with rosemary-infused gin. And a popular cocktail at the Rickhouse in San Francisco includes strawberry-infused whisky.
But the infused-alcohol drinks are illegal in California because a post-Prohibition era law forbids bars from altering the liquor they serve. Senate Bill 32 by Sen. Mark Leno would allow bars and restaurants to color, flavor or blend spirits or wine for consumption on their own premises.
The San Francisco Democrat – who said he likes his vodka plain – decided the law was necessary after hearing complaints from bar and restaurant owners in his city. Some had been warned by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control that as far as the law was concerned, their alcoholic infusions amounted to moonshine.
"I'm not an infused drink aficionado myself, but I realize it is an important component of business in San Francisco and through the state," Leno said.
"It really has been made into an art form at this point," he added, "and for government to be interfering made no sense whatsoever."
The bill sailed through the Legislature this year without a single vote in opposition. Still, proponents have launched a campaign urging Brown to sign it. More than 600 people have signed an online petition to that effect at Change.org.
"Many of these targeted bars and bartenders are those who pay close attention to the craft of the cocktail and the elevated guest experience, only using the finest, freshest ingredients and most progressive techniques," the petition says.
"To restrict a bartender's ability to infuse cacao nib into a bottle of bourbon for a specialty cocktail, or craft a unique proprietary bitters or tincture to add value to their business and uniqueness to their guest's evening is to restrict a bartender's ability to do their job as creatively and efficaciously as possible."
Behind the petition are two San Francisco bartenders who run a business helping restaurants develop cocktail menus and who plan to open their own bar next year.
"Scott (Baird) and I have always made a lot of homemade ingredients, and lot of our contemporaries in San Francisco have done the same," said Josh Harris, describing cocktails infused with wild cherry bark, cedar and dandelion root. "If your imagination can think of it, then hey, let's do it."
Their petition is more than a political lobbying tool. It's also being used to promote San Francisco Cocktail Week, which began Monday and was planned in part by Baird and Harris. The week features a series of drinking events – pub crawls, cocktail mixing classes and bartender competitions – sponsored by the booze industry.
The same industry is supporting SB 32. The bill has no registered opposition and is supported by restaurant owners, winemakers and liquor manufacturers.
Jason Boggs, a co-owner of the Shady Lady, said the governor can give his business a boost by signing SB 32.
"Having that in our arsenal will make sure we're on the cutting edge of cocktails," Boggs said.
"It opens the door for more creativity and a better product in the end, which does help drive business for us."