UPDATE: As reported by The Tennessean, the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission announced this afternoon that it will not prohibit infused alcohol.
In the mood to order a drink made with bacon-infused bourbon or house-made bitters? Soon it might be tough to do in Tennessee.
The buzz at restaurants in the Volunteer State is that the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) is cracking down on house-infused spirits. That includes things like infused bourbons and vodkas, and bitters made in-house.
From Nashville to Knoxville, those in the food and dining industry wonder: How will this impact Tennessee’s burgeoning cocktail culture?
“Our customers are sophisticated. They want a drink that took some effort to make,” says Jim Popp, assistant general manager at the James Beard Foundation Award-nominated Lockeland Table in Nashville.
Over the past few years, Nashville has begun to receive national attention for its cocktail offerings. The Patterson House led the way, with its house-made bitters and bacon-infused bourbon (we featured it in our “Best Bars” issue earlier this year). The Music City’s Rolf and Daughters and Holland House Bar & Refuge have also received attention for their innovative infusions. In Memphis, the new Hog & Hominy has emerged as a cocktail leader, and several other bars around the state are following suit.
But in the past month, restaurants and bars have received notice that the TABC may no longer allow house-made infused spirits. (We tried but were unable to reach the TABC. They did go on record for Knoxville’s MetroPulse.)
Michael Riley, general manager of the Oliver Hotel and its Peter Kern Library in Knoxville, says he’s concerned that he won’t be able to serve their house-made bitters and lavender vodka, and as a result may not be able to sustain the level of creativity people expect. After all, bitters on a menu have become the norm. “This won’t look good for Tennessee.”
Matt Scalan, the attorney for the Tennessee Hospitality Association, which represents restaurants, bars, and hotels around the state, says the impact of banning house-made infusions could be significant. “If this rule comes into effect it will shut things down completely,” he says, referring to the progress Tennessee has made as a cocktail leader. But he’s hopeful there will be a solution.
At the heart of the issue, he says, is that the laws being interpreted are for manufacturers, not bars and restaurants. The craft cocktail movement — and infusions — are still relatively new in Tennessee, so there aren’t guidelines for the preparation and serving of these spirits.
He says he’s speaking with the TABC next week, and expects that a solution will be found.
Laura Sohn, co-owner of Knoxville’s Public House, says she’s disappointed to have to pull their barrel-aged Negroni from the bar, but she’ll do whatever it takes to comply with the law. “It’s a little stifling, but at this point, we’re trying to adapt.”