Gov. Brown has signed the liquor tasting bill that we wrote about last week, allowing most distillers to offer tastings at their production facilities. Distillers aren’t exactly celebrating, however, since the bill does not allow direct sales of most kinds of spirits, the way wineries and breweries can do. Until that happens, many brewers say there is no point in setting up a tasting room.

Dig into this question and it quickly becomes cleat that California’s liquor licensing is more than a little confusing and arbitrary. Under the old rules, brandy makers could offer tastings and sell direct to the public, but makers of vodka and other spirits couldn’t. Now, under this new bill, brandy makers can still taste and sell, while the vodka guy can taste but not sell. Just to confuse things further, in a lot of cases, distillers are operating under several different licenses at the same location, so there are some products you can buy at a distillery and others you can’t.

Distillers tell me this restrictive system, one of the toughest in the country, is curtailing their creativity. Arthur Hartunian of Napa Valley Distillery says he would love to make a line of vodka and whiskey, but his production is so small that no distributor would bother to carry his products. Likewise, Timo Marshall, founder of Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol, says he and his wife would love to be able to experiment with unusual oak aging regimes for their whiskeys, but they couldn’t produce enough of any one batch to get a distributor interested in carrying it.

And if the distributor won’t sell it for them, there’s no point in even making the stuff since it is illegal for Napa or Spirit Works  or any other spirits producer to sell it directly to consumers or bars.

To make matters worse, it turns out there is yet a third category of spirits production I didn’t get to in last week’s article. I got an email from the owner of a lemoncello producer down in Ventura who points out that there is an entire category of spirits producers who get nothing under the current bill. Anyone who buys distilled spirits from another source and then modifies them in some way (such as adding lemons and a sweetener to create lemoncello, as the Ventura company does) is excluded from the bill, meaning they still couldn’t offer tastes and they can’t sell directly to the public either. This is known by the blandly bureaucratic name of a “Type 07, rectifier” license. Lots of producers, for example, buy rye and bourbon from other producers and put it in a barrel for extra aging, or buy bulk vodka and add herbs and spices to create a gin. That would be considered “rectifying,” therefore no tasting and no sales under the bill the governor just signed.

Neat, huh?

– Sean Scully