Why Alberta Bars Can’t Infuse Spirits, or Barrel-Age or Batch Cocktails
Infusing alcohol is still prohibited in Calgary and that means we are lagging behind other cocktail cities like Toronto.
Those nice, barrel-aged cocktails you sip in New York (where barrel-aging is done in-house) and the pre-mixed and bottled cocktails you love on your visits to Vancouver are not on the menu in Alberta.
Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) rules prohibit the alteration of liquor in any way – this means no ingredients may be added, and nothing can be mixed or prepared – in advance of a patron ordering a drink at the bar. Infusions, where bartenders add spices or fruit to a spirit (think saffron in gin, or grapefruit added to tequila) and then allow it to soak up the flavour, are also taboo.
The regulation irks bartenders committed to their craft, who argue that the policy limits their creativity and denies customers an elevated cocktail experience. “We’d be barrel-aging Negronis, infusing tequila and making different margaritas, being able to modify spirits. It would be the customer that would benefit the most because they’d have more options,” says Tony Migliarese, managing partner of Proof cocktail lounge. “Bartenders want it because they want to put their own twist and stamp on cocktails.”
What’s more, industry insiders say Calgary lags behind cocktail cities like Toronto and San Francisco because of the rule. “I think it’s outdated and slightly archaic,” says Nathan Head, a bartender and operating partner of Milk Tiger Lounge, which opened in 2008. “It inhibits our ability to play on the world stage. We can be just as good as New York, if given the chance.”
The AGLC is aware of what’s happening, cocktail-wise, in other states and provinces, but the agency’s primary concern is to support the industry while balancing social responsibility and protecting the health and safety of consumers – rather than bow to trends – says Graham Wadsworth, regional manager south, compliance branch, for the AGLC in Calgary.
“A patron needs to know what they’re ingesting,” says Wadsworth, adding there are concerns that alcohol content can be altered when it’s removed from the original bottle and dispensed out of another container. The agency also worries a customer might not get the brand they’re paying for (for example, if a well brand, also known as a house brand, is used in a cocktail batch or barrel instead of the promised premium brand).
“You’ve also got what could be categorized as ‘out there,’ ‘outlandish’ or ‘bizarre’ infusions where various insects or animals [are used], and, of course, that’s of very high concern,” Wadsworth says.
Bartenders have adapted to the rule by experimenting with infusions and barrel-aging in their own homes, and sharing the results with friends. And Head is hopeful the AGLC will eventually reverse its stance so creative crafting can move from home to bar.
Says Head: “I understand that changing a policy might be difficult, but I think it’s time for us to get with the times.”
[Update: A previous version of the story stated that AGLC is reviewing the current policy on altering liquor. Since publication, that review has been put on hold while the Government of Alberta takes time to understand the intent and scope of a liquor law review.]