How many bartenders does it take to change an outdated law in California? Two. Josh Harris and Scott Baird, San Francisco-based bartenders better known as the Bon Vivants, started a campaign asking Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill that lifted a nearly century-old ban on serving infused cocktails in California. Supporters of the bill claim the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) enforces the law randomly and with questionable tactics — all to raise revenue. We checked in with the victorious Harris...
From left, Bon Vivants Josh Harris and Scott Baird. Photo courtesy of Russel Yip.
Mix: You've gotten involved in a complicated legislative issue in San Francisco. Can you briefly describe the problem you're trying to fix?
Josh Harris: Sure. There has a been a law on the books since the era of prohibition that prohibited bartenders from infusing spirits. The term that we're technically dealing with is "rectification." At the time this law was written, it related heavily to taxation/moonshining issues — issues not as relevant in this day and age. About a year ago, a handful of bars and bartenders got in a little bit of trouble with the California ABC over awakening of this law. Why this dead law came back to life, we can only speculate (you'd have to ask the ABC). But, long story short, the letter of the law was being enforced rather than the spirit of it.
Mix: Why has it taken so long for this law to be corrected?
Harris: Well, I guess it was one of those things that was so irrelevant for decades that nobody would have thought to overturn it. I'd say that once this law was brought back into the spotlight, Senator Mark Leno showed an immense amount of social awareness and support for our industry. He acted in a timely manner and is to be commended for involving himself in a cause that is seemingly relevant to only a small portion of his constituency but has very far-reaching tentacles.
Mix: How will changing things benefit bartenders and their customers?
Harris: The effect is profound. The food and beverage craft has always been based on innovation and imagination. The passage of this law allows us who bartend in the "craft cocktail" fashion more ability to create unique guest experiences for our customers. In a world where small businesses, bars and restaurants deal with such an extreme amount of competition, it is important that you are able to create that which sets you apart from your neighbor while still playing a part in the entire industry growing.
Mix: Bartenders rarely get involved in politics like this. Have you been surprised by the response?
Harris: I'd have to say I disagree. I contend that there are rarely relevant politics like this for bartenders to get involved in. I'm not surprised at all. We have always placed a strong emphasis on the idea of community within our industry and this is not the first time, nor the last that it has manifested itself publicly and positively. It is just another example of what our industry is capable of accomplishing if we stand behind something. Score one for the good guys!
Mix: Are there other oddities in California state law like this that could benefit from some industry attention?
Harris: I guess “always” would be the answer. There is nothing pressing at the moment relating to our industry in the same fashion as this. But someone always has a cause, so excuse my naiveté. I think the biggest success out of this is the potential ripple effect both to other issues in our state as well as in other states. Every state in this country has at least one Prohibition-era law that makes absolutely no sense with the context of today’s bar and restaurant climate. It would be wonderful for this California law to set a precedent for these other states.
Mix: Now that you’ve succeeded, what will be your first infusion?
Harris: We have succeeded! This SB 32 was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown with an urgency clause (on Sept. 21) in the middle of San Francisco Cocktail Week. Uh, my first infusion will be apricots into cognac.
Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?
Harris: Always hard to put a favorite on something in this biz, but I will say that I have been using a lot of Scotch and tequila, as well as sherry and amari/bitters with some sort of well-made bright fruit liqueur. Usually these ingredients find their way into some combinations together when I'm behind the stick.