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The Shaky Legal Standing Of Barrel-Aged Cocktails

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 5, 2013 4:30PM

Barrel-aged cocktails are one of the most prevalent new trends in Chicago's bar scene. Practically every new cocktail bar has a barrel-aged cocktail or two, and even some neighborhood bars have jumped on the bandwagon by buying a whiskey barrel, filling it with something and storing it in a closet for a few months, then charging $15 for the privilege of drinking out of it. We've tried tons of these cocktails and some of them are absolutely delicious. Unfortunately for those who enjoy them, the party might be over for these house-aged concoctions.

Rumors have spread throughout the bar and liquor community like wildfire over the past several weeks that health and liquor inspectors are either cracking down on barrel-aging or are about to do so. Practically no one is willing to go on the record about this issue, for fear of reprisals from inspectors or the loss of their liquor licenses, but everyone in the industry that we've talked to has heard and is concerned. At least one popular bar has been forced to discard some of its supply of barrel-aged cocktails, and others have stopped serving drinks they have already made.

The rumors got hotter when Tenzing Wine and Spirits posted a notice on their Facebook page last week. They warned "bar friends" that "if you are currently or are considering a barrel-aged cocktail option, take note: the ILCC has been cracking down on this quality offering."

The ILCC is the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, the state agency tasked with regulating the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages. We contacted Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the agency, and asked about the situation. While Hofer wouldn't comment on the particulars of any enforcement actions, she confirmed that if people were caught barrel-aging cocktails, it would likely be illegal. "State law says that a mixed drink can only be stored for up to seven days," explained Hofer. "If you're taking a single item, like ginger, and putting it in vodka and infusing the vodka, there's no health risk. If you're chopping up fruit and storing sangria for a couple of months, that could be kind of disgusting."

The state law Hofer is referring to is the Illinois Liquor Control Act (235 ILCS 5). There are several provisions of the law that could implicate barrel-aged cocktails. For instance, one section provides that no person (except a manufacturer or distributor) "shall fill or refill, in whole or in part, any original package of alcoholic liquor with the same or any other kind or quality of alcoholic liquor." The law defines a barrel as an "original package."

The ILCC rules and regulations contain other provisions that might be problematic for those wishing to barrel-age a cocktail at a restaurant or bar, most notably the part that Hofer was likely referring to above. Check out Section 100:160:

Pre-mixed alcoholic beverages and their containers must comply with all sanitation requirements found in this Section, along with all prohibitions against refilling found in Section 100.290(c). All pre-mix dispensing containers or systems must be drained, contents disposed of, and thoroughly cleaned at least once every week.

Because a cocktail made in a huge batch could be considered a "pre-mixed alcoholic beverage," any container used to store it would need to be cleaned once a week and the contents discarded—a provision that would make barrel-aging little more than cosmetic.

Until recently, barrel-aging was a relatively limited trend, and one that bars could count on overworked inspectors not to notice. At this point, however, with craft cocktail bars popping up like mushrooms and plenty of food and drink articles about the trend all over the press, it's not surprising that someone has finally taken note.

For Hofer, this is a potential public health issue—after all, consumers have no idea what is going into the barrels or how they are being stored. "If the mixture contains fruit juice or cut up pieces of fruit, that could be problematic," Hofer explained. "Do you want to be drinking something where the fruit has been stored for god knows however long? I've certainly had plum brandy and the plums are delicious, but those are sterilized."

While most of the barrel-aged cocktails we have had contain only liquor, vermouth and bitters, there may be others on the market. Spirits, whether in a bottle of a barrel, last almost indefinitely, though bars and restaurants aren't allowed to serve directly from the barrel - the spirit must be bottled first, which ensures some level of quality control. It's conceivable that added vermouth could spoil on the shelf (though it would likely just taste bad, rather than being poisonous) and any added fruit or dairy certainly could.

"We have a three-tier liquor system in Illinois—you buy the liquor, you pour it, you sell it - you don't manufacture it in-house," explained Hofer. At least, unless you have a distilling or manufacturing license, like the new CH Distillery. Therein lies another problem—if bars are making products in-house, they may, legally, qualify as manufacturers, which requires a different sort of license and inspection.

Taken to the extreme, these regulations could also prohibit the in-bar manufacture of bitters, liqueurs and other ingredients that contain alcohol mixed with other ingredients and are stored for long periods of time.

We couldn't find any reports (or even any rumors from our sources) of anyone who has been sickened by a barrel-aged cocktail, an event that would certainly have precipitated stricter inspections, but an incident may have occurred. Or, this could be yet another case of the law not yet having caught up with new trends in the food world—see shared kitchens, food trucks and homebrewing.

Even Hofer admits that possibility, though the commission will still enforce the law as it's written. "When we saw microbreweries start to grow, we changed the laws to accommodate them," she explained. Tenzing, in its original Facebook post, had a similar suggestion (though it was accompanied by one we would certainly not endorse): "It might take some crafty verbiage on menus or better hiding places in the lock ups. Or starting a petition and hiring a lobbyist."