Comment on the FDA’s cigar regulations

If you’ve been following my writing on the subject, you know that FDA regulation has the potential to devastate the market for cigars, pipes, and e-cigarettes. Tomorrow is the final day to submit public comments on the agency’s proposal to extend their authority to these products. Comments can be submitted here. Helpful suggestions for commenting can be found here from the site Halfwheel. My own comment, limited to cigars, is below.

Comments submitted for FDA regulations regarding premium cigars, Docket No. FDA-2014-N-0189:

As an avid, though only occasional consumer of premium cigars, I have been following closely the FDA’s regulation of tobacco products. The Tobacco Control Act empowered the FDA to review all new tobacco products before they come to market, with the aim of ensuring that these products are, at minimum, no more harmful to the health of society as a whole than the products already being sold in 2007. While this is arguably a laudable goal, in practice the implementation of pre-market review has been hampered by infeasible standards that render the market for tobacco less competitive without corresponding benefits to public health.

Though this consequence is unintended, it was not unforeseen. Testifying to Congress in 2007, then commissioner of the FDA Andrew C. von Eschenbach predicted that the law would not allow enough sufficient time for the agency to develop science-based rules regarding tobacco and would “unduly and unfairly raise the public’s expectations about what the Agency could accomplish.”

The agency’s record so far has shown that Eschenbach was correct. Since taking over regulation of cigarettes, the FDA has received nearly 4,000 applications for substantial equivalence. Only a tiny percentage of these have been approved, and these have mostly involved either very basic products (i.e. rolling papers) or very minor changes to existing products (i.e. substituting one type of cigarette paper for another). The vast majority of applications remain stuck in regulatory limbo.

The experience of companies trying to bring new products to market suggests that doing so is nearly impossible. Lorillard, one of the largest tobacco companies, was able to do so only after extensive delays going well beyond the 90 or 180 day deadlines implied by the Tobacco Control Act. The smaller startup Hestia has found itself mired in insurmountable bureaucracy. Documents provided by Hestia show that more than two years into the review of its substantial equivalence application, the FDA has not even begun to examine the physical characteristics of its cigarettes, focusing instead on marketing materials relating to identification of the predicate product. These details are irrelevant to the health impact of Hestia’s cigarettes and call into question the scientific basis of pre-market review. (Since pending applications are not made public, the experience of the vast majority of applicants remains unknown.)

The unintended consequence of this lengthy review process has been to freeze the market for cigarettes as it was in 2009, protecting the brands that dominated then from competition. The health benefits of restricting the entrance of competitors are unclear, especially when reviews do not reach the stage of evaluating the actual physical characteristics of new products.

Given that the market for premium cigars is much more dynamic than the market for cigarettes, with potentially thousands of new products being introduced each year, applying the FDA’s current rules and procedures to cigars would be devastating both to producers and to cigar smokers who value variety. It would also overwhelm the agency with applications, assuming producers bother attempting to navigate the review process.

This raises the question of how the FDA can regulate cigars without unduly burdening manufacturers. One possibility is to simply not apply the deeming regulation to cigars. This is my preferred course of action, though it is obviously unlikely that the FDA will accept it.

A second option is that proposed by the agency to exempt premium cigars from many of the regulations that apply to cigarettes (“Option 2” in the FDA’s proposal). This requires the creation of a legal distinction between premium and non-premium cigars. The agency’s proposal suggests eight factors that would distinguish premium cigars. They would be wrapped in whole tobacco leaf, contain 100% leaf tobacco binder and primarily long filler tobacco, be made by hand, lack any filter or mouthpiece, have no characterizing flavor other than tobacco, weigh no more than six pounds per 1,000 units, and retail for no less than $10 per cigar.

This definition shares many similarities with that in proposed legislation to exempt premium cigars from FDA regulation. The most glaring difference is the retail price requirement, which would set an effective price floor of $10 for all new cigars. This would be a very large price increase for consumers; one industry analysis finds that only about 15% of premium cigars currently sell for $10 or more.

The price of a cigar obviously has nothing to do with its objective characteristics that could affect a smoker’s health. A $5 cigar is no less or no more healthy than a $25 cigar. A $10 price floor would rightly be seen as politically expedient rather than scientifically justified, a means of keeping wealthy cigar smokers happy.

Another likely consequence of instituting a $10 price floor would be to incentivize black market sales. If all new premium cigars in the United States are required to retail for at least $10, consumers will be attracted to the greater variety and lower prices of cigars sold abroad (including those from Cuba, which are already illegal in the United States). Internet sales and in-person smuggling of foreign cigars would certainly increase. These black market cigars would not be regulated by the FDA at all, undermining the goals of regulation.

Nonetheless, the agency may conclude that some price floor is necessary to separate premium cigars from the cheap that allegedly draw in youth smokers. In that case, a compromise implementing a much lower price floor would better reflect the reality of the market.

A second objection to the proposed definition is the ban on all characterizing flavors other than tobacco. It is unclear what this would entail. Some flavors in cigars arise from ageing them in various woods. Many flavors such as whiskey or rum are not the kind one thinks of as being aimed at teenagers and are marketed to adults. A blanket ban on all flavors would be overly broad. Instead, the agency should work with the industry to identify types of flavoring that are of particular concern and evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

A third objection is to the requirement that all premium cigars be produced entirely by hand. This also is unrelated to the health impact of cigars and would advantage producers in places with low labor costs. It would likely end some cigar production in the United States, which is often assisted by machine. This, too, is an area in which the agency could consult with the industry to refine its definition of premium cigars.

Finally, I would like to suggest broader changes to the way the FDA handles substantial equivalence applications. In current practice, applicants must identify a specific predicate product and provide detailed empirical analysis showing that their proposed new product is substantially identical to it, raising no new questions of public health. This is unduly burdensome on new producers and unfairly advantages existing players, who possess information about their own products and the funding to analyze them. Even when proposed new products raise no new questions of health, applicants may not have access to information about predicate products that would allow them to reach the empirical stage of FDA review. For example, applicants are expected to provide documents such as bills of lading from more than a decade ago to prove that their selected predicate product was marketed in 2007. If the owner of the predicate product is a potential competitor, they obviously have no incentive to assist in the provision of such materials.

To make the substantial equivalence application process more equitable, the agency should establish objective guidelines for new products that would allow them to be considered substantially equivalent to products already on the market. Current applicants do not know how much variation from predicate products is acceptable and often cannot access information about predicate products in the first place. Clear guidelines established by the FDA would give smaller producers a chance at navigating the process without sacrificing public health. The current substantial equivalence pathway would also remain open to those who prefer it.

Regardless of whether the substantial equivalence pathway is streamlined, I hope that the FDA will adopt some variation of Option 2, exempting premium cigars from most of the requirements of the Tobacco Control Act. The market for premium cigars is akin to those for craft beer, wine, or coffee, defined by skilled producers and specific origins of product, and completely unlike the relatively commodified market for cigarettes. It is incompatible with the expensive and time-consuming review currently required of new tobacco products. And as the FDA itself has noted in its proposal, requiring such review would likely accomplish little for public health, given that premium cigars are consumed and marketed to adults and that their use is less likely to lead to addiction. Existing research also suggests that moderate use of cigars is much less harmful to health than use of cigarettes.

The differences in the impact on population-level public health among individual cigars would be so small as to be impossible to ascertain. Given that the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products has limited resources, its employees’ time can be put to much better use than the review of countless substantial equivalence applications for premium cigars.

– Jacob Grier
Portland, Oregon
August 7, 2014

Recent reading, drinks edition

Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails, Tony Abou-Ganim with Elizabeth Faulkner — Vodka is the most popular spirit in the United States, except among fancy mixologists. As craft cocktails have enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade, whiskey, gin, rum, bitter and herbal liqueurs, and other flavorful spirits have found favor with bartenders. Vodka, though in demand from many consumers, often struggles to find a place on the menu.

Vodka doesn’t have much presence in the canon of vintage American cocktails, which is one reason cocktail bars shun the spirit. Whiskey, gin, brandy, rum, and fortified wines abound in vintage books. Vodka arrived late on the scene, not taking off in the United States until enterprising marketers mixed it with ginger beer to create the Moscow Mule, served in frosty copper mugs. This early success set a smart strategy for vodka: Rely on other ingredients to provide flavor and present cocktails in a striking way.

Like many bartenders, I tend to avoid vodka on my own menus. There are a limited number of ounces to work with in a drink and it can seem a waste to use them up on a spirit that is legally defined in the United States as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” With the wealth of other spirits now available, there is almost always something available to complement the other elements of a drink and provide additional layers of complexity: The botanicals of gin or aquavit, the funky notes of rum or cachaca, the oakiness of cognac or whiskey. Why opt for vodka instead?

Thus Tony Abou-Ganim has his work cut out for him Vodka Distilled. Abou-Ganim aims to fix the disconnect between consumers who love vodka and the craft bartenders who often ignore it. With more than three decades in the industry, including landmarks such as Po and the Bellagio, there’s no one better suited to do it.

“The fact that vodka suffers from a misplaced lack of respect was highly motivating for me to write this book,” writes Abou-Ganim in the introduction. He also disputes the popular notion that all vodkas are the same. “Think about tasting and comparing one vodka to another not, not as comparing apples to oranges but akin to comparing apples to apples — apples of the same variety grown in different orchards with differing geography and under various climate and nutrient conditions.” Though subtle, the differences are there.

Following his advice, I pulled out the myriad bottles of vodka I’ve acquired over the years, most of them never opened, and had an impromptu tasting. I tried them first neat at room temperature, then again after chilling in the freezer. It’s been a long time since I put much thought into tasting vodka, and I have to admit that it was a worthwhile experience. Subtle nuances were readily apparent and drinking them chilled was enjoyable.

The most valuable part of the book may be the chapter of vodka cocktail recipes. Regardless of one’s personal preferences, one’s guests (at home or in a bar) are likely to request vodka cocktails from time to time. It’s good to have some drinks up your sleeve. Vodka Distilled provides a good selection. And while I might be tempted to substitute gin in a few of them, they make a tasty collection of classics and a few new creations.

Other sections of the book look at vodka and caviar pairing — currently out of the budget of this reviewer; regulations and definitions; methods of production; and tasting notes on 58 different vodkas. Photographer Tim Turner’s work is elegant. I learned quite a bit from the book, and recommend it.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks, Amy Stewart — How much fun can a book that’s essentially an orderly listing of plant facts be? If it’s about how plants are transformed into drinks and it’s written by Amy Stewart, quite a lot. I found myself eagerly consuming The Drunken Botanist — sassafras to sundew to sweet woodruff, to take a random selection — on a long plane trip. It begins with the plants used for fermentation of alcohol, moves on to those used for flavoring during productions, and ends with fresh ingredients added at the last minute in the making of cocktails.

The book includes recipes and tips for gardening, though I’m going to find the most use of it as a very thorough reference (at least until I move into a place more friendly to growing plants). It’s engagingly written and highly informative, easily one of the best drink books to come out last year.

The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, Tom Acitelli — Maureen Ogle, who has been the go-to historian of American beer since the publication of her book Ambitious Brew, endorses Tom Acitelli’s history of modern American craft brewing: “My reign is over. Craft beer has a new historian, and I hereby hand my crown to him (and do so with good cheer).”

It’s a very thorough, well-researched book, and covers both the very early days of brewing at Anchor and New Albion along with recent developments. (Maybe I’m being provincial, but my one complaint is that the Pacific Northwest brewing scene seemed to be a bit neglected.) The history may be too detailed for a casual reader who’s not deeply into beer, but for those who are, this is the book to get.

Bar Jutsu: The American Art of Bar Fighting, James Porco — This book isn’t about drinking, but rather the potentially violent situations that arise when people drink too much. Having spent most of bartending career in genteel spots like The Carlyle and Metrovino, my qualifications for reviewing a book on bar brawls are extremely dubious. I did fence in college though, and took a year of aikido, so my skills may come in handy if a fight ever breaks out while I’m sabering a bottle of champagne.

James Porco, a professional bouncer and certified ninjitsu instructor, is qualified to write one. His book explains basic techniques, with an emphasis on ideally avoiding violent confrontation altogether and on ending it as quickly as possible with strategic grapples when fights do erupt. It’s written in a jokey style, sometimes veering too much into bro territory, with some amusing real life anecdotes involving pickle fights and drunken circus clowns (really). Techniques are broken down with photographs and instructions. You’ll need a partner to practice the maneuvers, and learning from a book is much harder than learning in person, but there seems to be enough detail here to try things out. It’s a fun book with some sound advice that, hopefully, one won’t have many occasions to use.

Brewing Up Cocktails Returns!

Nearly two year since our last event, Brewing Up Cocktails is back with a new menu of cocktails featuring beers from Ninkasi. Join us at Circa 33 this Tuesday for our reunion during Portland Beer Week.

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: This cocktail may produce discomfort in those who have a low tolerance for capsaicin, perceive cilantro as a soapy flavor, suffer from a real or imagined gluten sensitivity, are in a state of shock over the price of limes, or believe that putting beer in a cocktail will lead only to discord. All others may find it refreshing and enjoyable.

1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo barrel aged cachaça
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz habanero syrup
small handful of cilantro leaves
2 oz wheat beer

Combine the cachaça, lime juice, habanero syrup, and cilantro in a shaker. Shake with ice and strain into a flute or cocktail glass. Top with the beer and stir gently to combine.

Habanero syrup:

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
5 habanero peppers, stemmed but not deseeded

Combine sugar and water over heat and stir until dissolved, bringing to a boil. Add peppers and remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for 20 minutes. Strain and keep refrigerated.

This cocktail was created for Novo Fogo’s Bars on Fire event in Washington, DC, where offense was kept to a minimum.

Cigars at The Daily Beast

My first contribution to The Daily Beast explains what’s at stake in the proposed FDA cigar regulations:

Ever since the FDA was given authority over cigarettes in 2009, cigar makers have been pushing a bill in Congress to keep stogies out of the agency’s purview. That an industry would try to protect itself from FDA regulation is not surprising. That the FDA might agree with them is. And given the agency’s record on cigarettes, keeping its hands off of premium cigars is the right idea.

Read the whole thing here.

Bars on Fire at Cafe Saint-Ex

Corrida de Cavalos

I’ve been too wrapped up in book duties to post many cocktails lately, but now that that’s mostly complete I’m back to blogging and tending bar. My next stop takes me back to my old home of Washington, DC where I’ll be guest bartending at Cafe Saint-Ex on Tuesday with Franklin Jones of The Gibson! We have a menu of Novo Fogo cachaça cocktails ready for our Bars on Fire event, happening 5-8 pm. Here’s a preview of one them, the Corrida de Cavalos. It wasn’t made with horse racing in mind, but the use of mint and the timing of the Kentucky Derby is such a nice coincidence that I’ll pretend it was intentional.

2 oz Novo Fogo silver cachaça
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz mint vinegar
1/2 oz rich simple syrup (2:1)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 oz soda
mint sprig garnish, for garnish

Shake cachaça, lime, vinegar, syrup, and bitters with ice and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with soda, garnish with fresh mint.

To make the mint vinegar:

1 cup champagne vinegar
leaves from 5-6 mint sprigs

Bring vinegar to a boil, pour over leaves, and allow to infuse overnight or for a couple days. Strain and bottle.

Good news for wine growlers

Last month I noted that the Tax and Trade Bureau had issued a new ruling that would have made the increasingly popular practice of filling growlers with for wine for off-premise consumption a lot more complicated. Among other things, the rules would have required retailers to receive permission from the TTB to act as a bottling house and to keep up with various records and labeling requirements. Fortunately, the wine industry spoke up and the TTB has changed its mind [pdf]:

TTB recognizes that our existing regulations were intended to cover traditional taxpaid wine bottling activities, rather than the filling of wine growlers.

Accordingly, TTB has determined that it would be appropriate to engage in rulemaking on this issue so that we can modernize our regulations to specifically address the filling of growlers with taxpaid wine. This will allow TTB to evaluate what regulations are necessary in order to protect the revenue without unduly burdening businesses that wish to engage in this activity. This will also enable us to evaluate comments from all interested parties, including consumers, industry members, and State regulatory agencies.

In the interim, we are suspending TTB Ruling 2014-3 pending rulemaking on the filling of growlers.

Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter.

What proposed FDA regulations mean for e-cigarettes and cigars

I had a relaxing morning planned until the FDA announced its proposed regulations extending its authority to more tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and cigars. Predictably most of the press is focusing on the former, but the proposals over cigars are also very interesting. The long PDF detailing the proposal is here. Since you probably don’t want to read that, read this post instead.

First, a little background on how the existing law works with regard to cigarettes. The most important power that the Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA was pre-market review. Before releasing a new cigarette, producers must now get explicit approval from the FDA. This created three classes of products:

1. Products that were already on the market as of February 2007 are grandfathered in and allowed to be sold without review, although the FDA could hypothetically order them off the market.

2. Products introduced between February 2007 and March 2011 are allowed on the market while under provisional review. Producers have had to submit applications, but they are allowed to continue selling while the FDA reviews them.

3. Since March 2011, all new products must receive FDA approval before being sold.

This has resulted in a freeze of the cigarette market since 2011. In the three years since then, only two new cigarettes have been approved for sale. The anti-competitive effect this has had on the cigarette market has been my primary criticism of the FDA’s handling of tobacco. It has been reviewing applications for four years, currently has more than 150 employees working on reviews, has received approximately 4,000 applications, and has managed to rule on only 34 of them. For more detailed information on this, see my coverage in The Atlantic and Reason. (Keep in mind, too, that the Tobacco Control Act was fully backed and negotiated by Philip Morris. They knew what they were doing.)

It’s also helpful to know what the FDA is looking for in new product applications. The law establishes two routes to approval. One is for completely new products (premarket tobacco applications) and requires extremely burdensome amounts of data; this is basically uncharted territory at this point. The other is “substantial equivalence.” To get approval by this route, a new product must demonstrate that it is substantially equivalent to a predicate product that was already on the market as of February 2007 or has since been approved by the FDA. “Substantially equivalent” is defined to mean having the same characteristics (materials, ingredients, design, composition, heating source, or other features) or raising no new questions of health. (To see why this is a huge obstacle to new producers, see my articles above.)

It’s been known for a long time that the FDA planned to extend its authority beyond cigarettes. The biggest concern is how the agency’s sluggish review process will affect these new products, especially e-cigarettes and cigars. These are both dynamic sectors of the market and applying the same standards that the agency uses for relatively commodified cigarettes is extremely problematic.

Impact on e-cigarettes: As mentioned above, substantial equivalence applications must specify a predicate product by which to compare the new product. That predicate product must have been on the market by February 2007. You can see the problem here. The market for e-cigarettes barely existed then. Thus the review process as it exists now is essentially a death sentence for e-cigarettes. As the agency notes in its proposal today, its hands are tied: “Because this date is written into the statute, we do not believe that we have the authority to amend it with respect to e-cigarettes or other products.”

Because of this, the FDA’s proposal gives e-cigarette companies two years after the date the rule goes into effect to submit a premarket tobacco application (PMTA). What happens after that is anybody’s guess. But unless the law changes, it looks like the substantial equivalence option is off the table for e-cigarettes and the variety of products that remain for sale will be extremely restricted. If any products successfully navigate the PMTA process, they will likely be those with lots of financial backing and perhaps the right connections.

Impact on cigars: The FDA’s proposals regarding cigars are intriguing. The agency offered two options. Option 1 is to treat cigars just like other tobacco products, subjecting them to all the same burdens of review. Option 2 is to carve out an exemption for premium cigars.

The first option, as I’ve been warning for a long time, would be disastrous. Hundreds of new cigars come out every year in distinct blends, shapes, and ages. Forcing them into a review process that has managed to approve only two cigarettes in four years would destroy the market as we know it. It would also require all cigars to be substantially equivalent to those already on the market in 2007, making the sector considerably more boring.

The fact that Option 2 is even being considered shows that the FDA is aware of this. Under this option, exemptions would be made for premium cigars. A cigar would be exempt if it:

(1) Is wrapped in whole tobacco leaf

(2) contains a 100 percent leaf tobacco binder

(3) contains primarily long filler tobacco

(4) is made by combining manually the wrapper, filler, and binder

(5) has no filter, tip, or non-tobacco mouthpiece and is capped by
hand

(6) has a retail price (after any discounts or coupons) of no less than $10 per cigar

(7) does not have a characterizing flavor other than tobacco**

(8) weighs more than 6 pounds per 1000 units.

This is not a perfect definition, but it’s a start. The biggest drawback is that it would create a price floor of $10 per stick and this price would be adjusted (i.e. increased) every two years. It’s still possible to get pretty nice cigars for under $10, especially if one buys them a box at a time, so this would be a substantial imposition on cigar smokers. At this point, however, I’m just glad that the option to exempt premium cigars from the FDA’s pre-market approval process exists at all.

Impact on pipes: Pipe smokers, now few and far between, did not put a substantial lobbying effort into influencing the FDA’s new regulations. As a result, pipes get very little discussion in the proposal. However pipe tobacco will be subject to the full authority of the FDA and, if I am reading it correctly, pipes themselves would be subject to pre-market review as well. That seems potentially problematic for unique, handmade briar and meerschaum pipes. Pipe smokers, stock up now or prepare to order from overseas!

What’s next: There are seventy-five days to comment on the proposed regulations. The biggest fight will be over e-cigarettes, which are the hottest topic in the press. In my view it’s a mistake for the FDA to wade into this until it gets its review process under control or can provide a workable alternative to the substantial equivalence path. The upside is that it will take at least two years before it takes enforcement action, which will allow more studies on e-cigarette’s effectiveness as a harm reduction tool to be conducted.

(Note also that the law requires the FDA to examine health impacts on the population level, not on the individual user, so it could order e-cigarettes off the market even though they are unambiguously safer than cigarettes. Remember too that the head of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, Mitch Zeller, came directly to the job from consulting for GlaxoSmithKline, which makes nicotine replacement therapies that compete directly with e-cigs. Might pharmaceutical companies use the new restrictive review process to develop nicotine vapor devices of their own? I would not be at all surprised.)

Cigars have been almost completely off the radar of press and anti-smoking groups, but expect that to change as the debate over exempting them unfolds. Cigar smokers will have to continue keeping the pressure on lawmakers and the FDA to not destroy the industry. It will be important to show that premium cigars are primarily enjoyed by adults and have different health effects than cigarettes for the typical user. (For a summary of the latter, see here.)

Regardless of which option the FDA takes, I expect black market sales of cigars to increase. If it takes Option 1, the variety of cigars available in the United States will suffer greatly. If it takes Option 2, the price will rise to $10 a stogie.* Cuban cigars are pretty alluring already! If you enjoy the company of your local tobacconist, savor the next few years you have together. Their store may not be around much longer.

* Update to add that cigars could escape the price floor by winning FDA approval, but given the agency’s record so far I would not expect many to achieve that. Cigars that were on the market before 2007 could remain available at a lower price too.

** Additional note: I’ve asked the FDA several times whether ageing tobacco in cedar wood, a traditional practice for many cigars, would run afoul of the rule against characterizing flavors. They have not been willing to clarify this.

Tennessee whiskey, Tennessee Fire

Unless you don’t care at all about whiskey, you’ve probably heard by now about the debate in Tennessee. In brief: Last year the state legislature passed a law officially restricting use of the term “Tennessee whiskey” only to products that meet all the requirements of bourbon and undergo charcoal mellowing. This is the traditional definition of Tennessee whiskey and the law was backed by Jack Daniel’s, the brand owned by Brown-Forman.

On the other side is a new effort to relax the law, such as by allowing distillers to skip charcoal mellowing or age their whiskey in used oak barrels. This effort is pushed by Diageo, owner of the George Dickel brand of Tennessee whiskey, which also complies with the traditional definition.

The debate has divided whiskey enthusiasts and libertarians, two groups with substantial overlap on a Venn diagram. Purists like Chuck Cowdery come down in favor of Daniel’s and against Dickel. My libertarian-leaning friend Doug Winship does too, though with a few more caveats. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason notes that the existing law is a wee bit protectionist.

What’s a libertarian whiskey lover to think? I’m a bit conflicted myself. Below is my attempt at working it out, seen through the lens of a much easier case: bourbon.

Unless one holds that the position that there should be no legally defined standards of identity at all, one is probably OK with the standards for bourbon. (Basically, it has to be at made from at least 51% corn, aged in charred new oak barrels, and distilled and aged within certain ranges of proof.) Whether or not these were ideal standards at the time of passage, it would be a tough case to make that they should be changed now. Any distiller lobbying to do so would rightly be seen as trying to water down established standards.

With that in mind, here are five things I think the bourbon standard of identity has going for it:

1. Clearly defined processes within a well-established tradition among multiple producers.

2. Market recognition of the designation.

3. Long-standing law.

4. Broad geographic application (bourbon can me made anywhere in the US, not just Kentucky).

5. Doesn’t restrict competition from other distillers making other kinds of whiskey (they must simply refrain from using the word “bourbon”).

Now let’s compare this to Tennessee whiskey. Historically, this product is identical to bourbon in all but one essential aspect, the use of the Lincoln County process. This is the filtration of unaged spirit through charcoal, a step that mellows the finished whiskey.

Taking the five points above, how does a “Tennessee whiskey” designation compare to that of bourbon?

1. Clearly defined tradition among multiple producers: Tennessee whiskey definitely has the tradition part down. So much so, in fact, that despite my obsession with liquor laws, it’s easy for me to forget that it wasn’t legally defined until last year. Charcoal mellowing is deeply and historically entwined with Tennessee whiskey. The multiple producers part is not as solid. Until recently, there was only Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel (thank you, Prohibition). Now there is also Collier and McKeel and Prichard’s, the latter of which doesn’t use the process. Score: Daniel’s 1, Dickel 0.

2. Market recognition: This one’s more of a judgement call, but my impression is that consumer association of Tennessee whiskey is very strongly associated with Jack Daniel’s, and by extension with the processes used to make it. Moderately informed whiskey drinkers can tell you about the mellowing process that makes it unique. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 0.

3. Long-standing law: There is no federal standard of identity for Tennessee whiskey. The Tennessee law went into effect less than a year ago. However NAFTA defines Tennessee whiskey as a bourbon produced in Tennessee, which does get at the requirement of using new barrels, but omits the charcoal mellowing. There’s a conservative case for not changing established law without good reason, but it’s weak here. I’m calling this a draw. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 0.

4. Broad geographic application: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Tennessee whiskey, obviously, can only be made in Tennessee. This presents problems. What do you call charcoal-mellowed bourbon made in another state? What do you call a whiskey made in Tennessee that isn’t mellowed or doesn’t use new oak barrels? It would be nice if there was some other word for traditional Tennessee whiskey that didn’t involve a place name. Instead, non-traditional producers will have to use a work around like “whiskey distilled in Tennessee” (and is that really any less confusing for consumers?). Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 1.

5. Doesn’t restrict competition: Bourbon regulations apply equally to everyone. The Tennessee law doesn’t. It protects the three producers who follow the traditional recipe. It also protects Prichard’s, which doesn’t use the mellowing step, but was grandfathered in and is allowed to call its product Tennessee whiskey anyway. Any newer producers making a product otherwise identical to Prichard’s have to call theirs something else. This is a legal mess. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 2.

So the final score is a tie. I’m not saying that’s a definitive measure or that all of these considerations should be weighted equally, but after giving this some thought my reluctant conclusion is that I just don’t care that much. There’s a good case to be made that Tennessee whiskey and its associated processes have a long, well-established tradition worthy of legal protection (at least as worthy as many other standards of identity). There’s also a pretty good case that legal protection is unnecessary and that the existing, extremely young law is too muddled to be worth defending. Keep it in place and Jack Daniel’s will continue to be the best-selling Tennessee whiskey by a mile. Repeal and it and Jack Daniel’s will also continue to be the best-selling Tennessee whiskey by a mile.

The upshot is that unless you’re invested in Brown-Forman, Diageo, or another Tennessee producer, this law isn’t going to affect you. On the merits, I lean ever so slightly to keeping the law as is. But if it’s repealed, I’ll be fine with that too.

There are, however, a couple thoughts to take away from this. One is that regardless of how this plays out, other states should not follow suit. As the boom in small distilleries continues there is going to be a temptation in other states to impose new legal standards on their own products. I’ve already heard talk from Oregon distillers about the possibility of creating a standard of identity for “Oregon whiskey.” Given the huge diversity of distillers here — we’re at more than 60 now — I can’t imagine a definition that will work for everyone and reflect established traditions, of which there really aren’t any. Trying to define one would be putting the cart before the horse.

As a bartender and spirits writer, I can deal with a special designation for Tennessee whiskey. But if I find myself having to remember 50 different state designations, regret for this sort of thing is going to set in very quickly. If I wanted to memorize a bunch of arcane place-related trivia I would have become a sommelier. I’d much rather see what individual creative distillers come up with, regardless of where they’re located.

Secondly, neither company strikes me as particularly sincere in their efforts to sway consumers, legislators, and the press. It’s hard to believe that Diageo executives are truly losing sleep over the plight of small Tennessee distillers whose creative impulses are being stifled. They’ve already taken plenty of heat for that stance and I won’t pile on here.

But how about Jack Daniel’s? They are pitching their brand as the stalwart defender of the Tennessee whiskey tradition. From their press release:

“When consumers around the world see ‘Tennessee Whiskey,’ they expect it is a premium product representing a world-class standard and utmost quality,” said Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett. “What we have here is nothing more than an effort to allow manufacturers to deviate from that standard, produce a product that’s inferior to bourbon and label it ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ while undermining the process we’ve worked for nearly 150 years to protect.” [...]

“Using quality grains, quality water, quality barrels and other natural ingredients has been the backbone of Tennessee Whiskey and, frankly, the bourbon industry for decades. Why in the world would we want to change that now by inserting artificial ingredients into our processes? And why in Tennessee would we willingly give the bourbon industry the upper hand in quality by cheapening the process we use to make our whiskey,” Arnett said.

And that’s all well and good, but I just looked online and there are six different varieties of Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce, two steak sauces, and four different EZ Marinaders. EZ what now?

If you like marinating, you’ll love Jack Daniel‘s® EZ Marinader®, the country’s first ready-to-use liquid marinade in a flavor-sealed bag. In three EZ steps and without any mess, you are ready to cook! All the flavor with none of the fuss.

But it’s made with genuine Tennessee whiskey, right?

The product contains no alcohol. We use Jack Daniel’s® Tennessee Whiskey flavoring, which keeps the bold, hearty flavor associated with Jack Daniel’s®.

OK then. Jack Daniel’s also makes a honey liqueur. And this arrived in my mailbox this weekend:

This, to be fair, isn’t labeled Tennessee whiskey. It’s a “finely crafted cinnamon liqueur blended with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey.” Which is fine. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make liqueurs with their spirits or to make money, the latter of which is pretty clearly the motive here. Cinnamon whiskey liqueur has become immensely popular and the company wants to get in on that. And though I don’t make a habit of drinking the stuff and haven’t done a side-by-side tasting, I can honestly say that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire is better than the others I’ve tried in the category.

The problem is that Jack Daniel’s case for legally defining Tennessee whiskey is that its brand has worked hard for decades to build that standard and establish it with consumers around the world. To a large extent, they’re right. But they’re also willing to slap that brand onto everything from EZ Marinader® to cinnamon whiskey liqueur. And if you can tell me with a straight face that small distillers ageing whiskey in used bourbon barrels are a bigger threat to the pure image of Tennessee whiskey than these heavily marketed items, then the first shot of Tennessee Fire® is on me.

Say “Grrr…” to new growler regulations

Avid beer drinkers are familiar with the “growler,” a big jug used for transporting beer from a tap to one’s home. Filled and sealed properly, they keep beer fresh and carbonated for short-term consumption. (With caveats!) They’re great for when you want to bring home a beer that’s only available on tap or want to entertain guests. Living in Portland, one of the best beer cities in the world, I’ve taken advantage of this convenience many times.

In recent years, wineries have also begun selling their wine in kegs. In some situations — properly equipped restaurants, for example — this can more cost-effective and less wasteful than dealing with bottles. And, naturally, some places with wine on tap have also begun filling growlers. Oregon and Texas have both legalized wine growler sales in various venues and Washington is following suit. Here in Oregon, licensed wineries, restaurants, bars, and retailers are all free to fill growlers with wine.

Last week, however, the Tax and Trade Bureau weighed in on the practice. First the good news: selling wine in growlers is legal under federal law. Although states had gone ahead with wine growler fills, this was apparently ambiguous. It’s good to have it clarified.

Then there’s the bad news: Selling wine in growlers is going to involve a lot more red tape than selling beer. Under federal regulations, filling a growler with beer is considered filling a large glass and doesn’t impose additional burdens. (State laws, of course, may vary.) The TTB’s new ruling [pdf] clarifies that it’s not going to be so simple for wine. Specifically, the agency has determined that filling growlers with wine for off-premise consumption is considered bottling or packing for tax purposes, and that any person engaging in the activity must first qualify as a bottling house of taxpaid wine.

This means that before they can sell wine in growlers, businesses will have to apply to and receive permission from the TTB. And once qualified as a taxpaid wine bottling house, additional regulations will come into effect for wine growlers that don’t arise with beer:

1. Proprietors will have to “keep records of taxpaid wine received, bottled or packed, and removed.”

2. Proprietors will be responsible for measuring customers’ containers and ensuring accurate fill level and alcohol content.

3. Proprietors will have to label each container with “the name and address of the premises where bottled or packed; the brand name [...]; the alcohol content; the kind of wine and the net contents of the container.” They will also be required to remove or cover any preexisting labels on containers that don’t accurately describe the new contents.

It’s not clear to me yet exactly how burdensome these regulations are going to be, but the decision does seem to put the kibosh on dreams of making wine growler fills as ubiquitous and easy as they are for beer. With more restaurants and urban wineries offering wine on tap, growler fills were poised to be a new and convenient option. Here in Portland, for example, the forthcoming Coopers Hall announced plans to open with forty different wines on tap for on-premise consumption or take-away.

Assuming they stick with the plan, they’ll have to comply with these new regulations. I’m guessing that large retailers like Whole Foods will also find it worthwhile to qualify. But depending on how much of a hassle it is to do this, I expect many other restaurants with wine on tap may not bother.

The TTB notes that the Internal Revenue Code has different provisions for wine and beer and that this is the justification for the differential treatment with regard to growlers. Absent a change in the law, their hands may be tied. But from a policy perspective, it will be disappointing if this turns out to be an effective obstacle to the further adoption of wine kegs and reusable containers.

[Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter, a great source for northwest wine news. Photo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Kaitlyn Tierney.]

Multnomah County misleads bar owners

As a follow-up to my article in yesterday’s Oregonian about the failed attempt to include e-cigarettes in the state’s smoking ban, today I’m posting a memo Multnomah County officials have sent to local bars and restaurants. In it, they mislead business owners about the dangers of e-cigarettes, telling them:

State law does not currently prevent the use of e-cigs; however business owners are encouraged to include e-cigs in no-smoking policies. E-cigs pose serious health risks and challenges to enforcement of the Smokefree Workplace Law as it appears people are smoking indoors.

The letter then recommends that businesses include e-cigarettes in their no-smoking policies, adopt completely smokefree outdoor dining areas, and adopt a completely tobacco-free policy for their entire properties. (Here’s a PDF of the memo.)

There are valid reasons why a bar or restaurants might ban the use of e-cigs, such as the fact that some guests find them annoying. But county officials’ claim that the devices pose “serious health risks” is completely unsubstantiated. There’s not even much evidence that e-cigarettes are dangerous for users, much less for bystanders exposed to vapor secondhand.

There have been two recent studies on exposure to e-cigarettes in realistic indoor conditions. They are summarized here and here. Conclusion of the first:

… the quality and quantity of chemicals released in the environment [by vaping] are by far less harmful for the human health compared to regular tobacco cigarettes. Evaporation instead of burning, absence of several harmful chemicals from the liquids and absence of sidestream smoking from the use of the e-CIG are probable reasons for the difference in results.

And the second:

The study showed that e-cigarettes are a source of secondhand exposure to nicotine but not to combustion toxicants… Using an e-cigarette in indoor environments may involuntarily expose nonusers to nicotine but not to toxic tobacco-specific combustion products.

Even in the case of nicotine, exposure from real cigarettes was ten times higher than that from e-cigarettes.

Those are studies of indoor use. Multnomah County’s advice is to ban them outdoors too. The idea that indoor e-cigarette use could be harmful to bystanders is at least worthy of investigation, although the evidence so far is that it’s nothing to worry about. The idea that outdoor use presents serious health risks is wildly implausible.

This is yet another example of how the crusade against e-cigarettes is driven by unscientific alarmism rather than any empirical evidence of danger. County officials have shown that they have no credibility on the issue by misleading local business owners about the alleged risks.

Oregon’s war on vaping

The Oregon legislature recently failed to pass completely sensible restrictions on selling e-cigarettes to minor, an effort undermined by more extreme anti-smokers who were more intent on banning vaping in workplaces, bars, and restaurants. In today’s Oregonian, I write about lawmakers’ misguided attempt to include e-cigarettes in the smoking ban and their next proposal to impose new taxes on them. An excerpt:

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually getting nostalgic for the original smoking ban debate. Advocates exaggerated the dangers of secondhand smoke, but at least they made an effort to ground their views in science and demonstrate that non-smokers were being harmed.

The same cannot be said for those seeking to extend current bans to cover vaping. They’ll be the first to tell you that more study of e-cigarettes is needed. But why wait for results? They’re ready to ban first and ask questions later.

Read the whole thing here.

New at Reason

After a long absence (my previous article was in 2008!), I’m back in the pages of one of my favorite publications today. Over at Reason I take a look at the FDA’s latest actions against tobacco, explain why they accomplish nothing for public health, and spell out what they imply for the future of cigars and e-cigarettes.

The article also updates the case of Hestia Tobacco, whose regulatory tribulations I profiled at The Atlantic one year ago. Unfortunately, they are no closer to coming to market than they were before. See that article for a more in-depth explanation of the laws that allow the FDA to keep new tobacco products in regulatory limbo.

Finally, be sure to check in at Michael Siegel’s blog, where he has been tearing apart the FDA’s action this week from a slightly different perspective.

Quick Little Pick Me Up

Cocktail blogging has been slow here as I’m currently on break from working in bars and restaurants to focus on writing my beer cocktail book. It now has a publisher and will be coming out early next year from Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, with photography by the extremely talented David L. Reamer. We’ve completed about half the shots at this point and I can tell you already that the drinks are going to look fantastic.

That means I’m not doing much drink creation at the moment, but here’s one from a while back that I’ve been meaning to post. I got the idea of doing a coffee-infused amaro from Matthew Biancaniello in Los Angeles. I made an infusion of Stumptown Hairbender espresso beans and Ramazzotti amaro, then played around with it in several cocktails that I was never quite happy with. The infusion itself was delicious though, so I ended up just putting it on a big ice cube with a lemon twist. Sometimes easiest is best.

This drink started out on the Metrovino brunch menu, then migrated to the after dinner menu, and finally made it over to The Hop and Vine. I don’t think it’s available anywhere right now, but it’s simple to make at home.

8 oz Ramazzotti
10 grams coffee beans

Lightly muddle the coffee beans to crack (but not pulverize) them. Seal in a glass jar with Ramazzotti. Infuse for 24 hours, strain, and bottle. If you want to make more, just scale the recipe upward.

To serve, pour two ounces in a glass with a big rock and express a lemon peel over the drink. Garnish with the peel.

[Photo by Julia Raymond for The Hop and Vine.]

How grilling meat really is like a smoking a cigar

In his “Explainer” column at Slate yesterday, Brian Palmer raised alarm about grilled and smoked meats, suggesting that by eating them we may be, as the headline puts it, “Cooking Up Cancer”:

A growing body of research suggests that cooking meats over a flame is linked to cancer. Combusting wood, gas, or charcoal emits chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Exposure to these so-called PAHs is known to cause skin, liver, stomach, and several other types of cancer in lab animals. Epidemiological studies link occupational exposure to PAHs to cancer in humans. When PAHs from a flame mingle with nitrogen, say from a slab of meat, they can form nitrated PAHs, or NPAHs. NPAHs are even more carcinogenic than PAHs in laboratory experiments. The reasonable conclusion is that grilling meat may be hazardous to your health.

The evidence linking cancer to cooking meat over a combustion source has been accumulating for decades. Epidemiologists first noticed a connection between the consumption of smoked foods and stomach cancer in the 1960s. Japan, Russia, and Eastern Europe, where smoking is a popular way to preserve meat and fish, became laboratories for gastric cancer research. Newer studies suggest that eating smoked meats may lead to cancer even outside the gastrointestinal tract. A 2012 study, for example, linked smoked meat consumption with breast cancer.

Palmer then compares current attitudes toward grilled meats to outdated acceptance of tobacco use:

In the mid- to late-19th century, doctors determined that lip and tongue cancer rates were higher among smokers of pipes and cigars. Despite this link, major medical journals mocked those who opposed smoking. The Lancet, the leading journal of the time and still one of the most important medical journals in the world, wrote in 1879, “We have no sympathy with prejudices against … tobacco, used under proper restriction as to the time and amount of the consumption. … A cigar when the mood and the circumstances are propitious [is] not only to be tolerated, but approved.” Moderation, not abstinence, was the order of the day.

[...]

It wasn’t until 1964 that the Report of the Surgeon General finally and firmly declared that smoking was indisputably linked to the surge in lung cancer. By that time, epidemiologists had a complete picture of the long-term effects of the increase in cigarette smoking that began around the time of World War I. The conclusions practically drew themselves. Still, it took the public health community decades to agree that smoking in moderation is a terrible idea.

I learned of the article from my friend Jeff Woodhead on Twitter, who took Palmer to task for sensationalizing the dangers of grilling and noted that habitual cigarette use carries far greater risks than exposure to charred meat. I don’t disagree. However I want to defend Palmer on one point. He is actually correct to compare grilling meats to smoking tobacco, though not in the way he realizes.

That pack-a-day consumption of cigarettes greatly elevates one’s risk of lung cancer is no longer disputed by any sensible person. Moderate use of other forms of tobacco, in contrast, carries much less danger. The Lancet article that Palmer mocks for suggesting that moderation in tobacco use is nothing to worry about overstates the case but was not too far from the truth.

Just how dangerous is it to enjoy an occasional cigar “when the mood and the circumstances are propitious?” A study in Preventive Medicine compared rates of lung cancer among smokers of various kinds of tobacco to those of non-smokers. Cigarette smokers were 16 times more likely than never smokers to get lung cancer. Smokers of cigars only, pipes only, and cigars and pipes all fared much better. Further, lung cancer among pipe and cigar smokers was concentrated among those who were the heaviest consumers. “Among pipe and/or cigar smokers only, patients with lung cancer were more likely than controls to have been long-time smokers of 5 or more cigars or 5 or more pipefuls per day and to have inhaled. The odds ratio for those smoking 5 to 9 cigars or pipes per day was 3.2 and for those smoking 10 or more units 6.7. The odds ratio of those cigar or pipe smokers who inhaled was 12.3.”

A cohort study published in The New England Journal of Medicine followed about 17,000 men enrolled in Kaiser Permanente health plans who reported never smoking pipes or cigarettes. Over a course of more than 20 years, the study compared health outcomes for non-smokers and smokers of cigars. Cigar smokers carried a relative risk of cancer in the aerodigestive tract of 2.02 and in the lungs of 2.14.

A third study in BMJ examined the risks of dying from three smoking-related diseases among former cigarette smokers who had switched to smoking pipes or cigars. Their mortality risk relative to users of pipes and cigars who were never cigarette smokers was 1.51. To put that in perspective, their relative risk compared to people who had never smoked at all was 1.68. In other words, the study found that even former cigarette smokers who switch to pipes and cigars lowered their mortality risk to a level not much above that of never smokers.

Brad Rodu, an advocate of harm reduction approaches in tobacco control, summarizes many of these risks. What it basically comes do is this: Cigarettes are uniquely dangerous because they are inhaled directly into the lungs and are very addictive. Other forms of tobacco that are mainly enjoyed in the mouth and lend themselves less easily to habitual consumption are significantly less dangerous. The risks are real, but much, much lower than those associated with cigarettes.

How does all of this compare to eating meat? Palmer doesn’t cite many sources that specify the dangers, but one study he links to does associate consumption of smoked meat with breast cancer. It finds an adjusted odds ratio of 2.31-3.13. If that’s accurate (and it may be on the high side), then eating lots of grilled meat may actually be a lot like enjoying an occasional cigar — which is to say that it’s a reasonable choice many adults may decide to make.

(Note: Some of the studies cited in this post use relative risk while others use odds ratios. These are not identical measures but should be roughly comparable.)

It’s also interesting to ask how this compares to the dangers of exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke. Smoking bans have proliferated on the justification that workers should not be put at risk. Whatever one’s opinion of these policies, consider the findings from the landmark 2006 report from the Surgeon General. The report concludes without equivocation that environmental tobacco smoke increases the risk of lung cancer in non-smokers. By how much? The reports’ table of meta-analyses of studies estimates relative risks of exposure at home for non-smoking spouses or at work for non-smoking employees in a range of 1.12 at the low end to 1.43 on the high end. Those are low relative risks! If they are enough to justify comprehensive bans on indoor smoking — not to mention the outdooor bans that are now so popular — then one may well question the ethics of allowing restaurant cooks to expose themselves to grill smoke on our behalf.

One of the big problems with reporting on cancer is that it focuses on the wrong question. Journalists ask, “Does X increase the risk of cancer?” The answer is very often yes, but they don’t follow-up with, “By how much?” Lifestyle choices carry trade-offs and better reporting would help readers put them into perspective. Palmer, to his credit, does write that the “risk-reward equation for smoking differs from that of grilling or frying meat” and acknowledges that the epidemiology on the latter is not yet clearly established. His mistake is to carelessly lump all forms of tobacco use into one, ignoring the fact that different types and different use patterns carry substantially different levels of risk.

Of course, few yet advocate completely giving up grilled or smoked meat, much less passing legislation to restrict it. “Everything in moderation,” said one of the toxicologists quoted in the Slate article. One assumes that the toxicologist’s definition of “everything” doesn’t include tobacco, because who would say that these days? But Palmer’s comparison of grilling to smoking isn’t crazy. It just tells us a lot more about contemporary bias against tobacco use than it does about the dangers of meat.

Tour Portland by Bitcoin

Depending on whom one asks, Bitcoin is the future of currency, a useful tool for conducting transactions with vast untapped potential, or a speculative bubble of no lasting consequence. Enthusiasm for Bitcoin also signals various commitments, as Tyler Cowen notes, such as for libertarianism and technological optimism. Bitcoin has had a big week, with Overstock.com agreeing to accept it and The Chicago Sun-Times trying out a Bitcoin paywall.

The less obvious uses of Bitcoin are also intriguing. Writing at the Umlaut, Eli Dourado explains how the programming language that makes Bitcoin work opens up all kinds of possibilities, including contracts, micropayments, and proof of identity. It’s enough to convince me that Bitcoin or a successor cryptocurrency will likely be increasingly relevant and that it’s worth getting familiar with how to use it. And though I’ve in all likelihood missed my chance to strike it rich, there are far worse gambles than speculating on Bitcoin from my living room. It’s cheaper than Vegas and the drinks are better.

But if one is holding on to bitcoins for any reason beyond speculation, one will eventually want to spend them. There are lots of ways to do this online. Transfers between friends are also easy. But what about a night on the town? Where can one go to, say, turn bitcoins into beer?

To find out, my friend Tom and I consulted CoinMap.org to plot an evening out in Portland exclusively patronizing businesses that accept Bitcoin. As one might expect, it gets a little weird.

Sadly, we weren’t able to experience what likely would have been the weirdest stop on our itinerary. At Float On in southeast Portland, customers exchange dollars or bitcoins for 90-minute sessions in a sensory deprivation chamber, floating in complete darkness and silence. Float On’s FAQ promises that floaters will not drown, that it’s not New Age mumbo-jumbo, and that “only a small percentage of floaters turn into proto-human monkeys.”

Would I hallucinate a UFO abduction, be inspired to take up impressionist painting, or perhaps receive a vision of Bitcoin’s future value? I didn’t get to find out. Float On was booked until 2 am the night of our adventure, which was a little later than we were willing to commit to. The business closed for renovations the following day, promising to re-open in February. I was looking forward to this, but it will have to wait for some other time. I suppose it’s good to know for future reference that if one craves sensory deprivation at two in the morning, there’s a place in Portland to find it.

Our first stop instead was browsing the Mirador home goods store on southeast Division street, which was pleasant, if not quite as mind-expanding as a plunge into sensory deprivation. The store offers everything from standard pots and pans to more Portlandian items like home cheese-making kits. Tom picked out a cutting board and a cocktail strainer, and I made my first Bitcoin purchase, a small brush for cleaning out metal straws. I’d been needing one of those!

The checkout process at Mirador was the smoothest of all the places we visited. The clerk rang up our orders, then used a computer to generate a QR code containing a unique Bitcoin wallet address and the total price of our purchase. We simply held our phones up to the screen, approved the transfer, and the transaction was completed within seconds.

Our next stop was just two blocks away at Papa G’s vegan organic deli, which offers dishes such as a tofu dog, tempeh reuben, and house “nochos.” While the aromas at Papa G’s were enticing, we were not its target demographic and spent a while mulling our options. Eventually we settled on a couple of their house made drinks, a hibiscus cooler and ginger beer kefir. These were both good and refreshing. For those seeking harder stuff, the deli also offers a selection of bottled beers.

Checkout was completed by scanning a QR code taped to the register that is linked to a Bitcoin wallet controlled by the owner. This was fast and easy, but leaves the staff without a direct way of verifying the transaction.

A few minutes north is Madison’s Grill, a place I’d passed by many times but never visited until last week. Madison’s began accepting Bitcoin at the urging of local enthusiasts and hosts the Portland area Bitcoin Meetup group. The menu offers standard pub fare like burgers and fish and chips, and the fourteen-handle tap list includes both familiar brands and a rotating selection of craft beers, among them Awesome Ales and No-Li on our visit. This is easily the best place to convert bitcoins into beer in Portland. Given the rise in Bitcoin’s value from when I first bought in a few days before, my beer was essentially free.

We ended up sitting next to the owner, Steve Brown, an outgoing guy who’s having fun with his experiment being the first full-service bar and restaurant in Portland to accept Bitcoin. Though not yet a huge part of his business, the venture does seem to be paying off with new customers and press.

Madison’s is also notable for being the only place on our crawl that has found a way to integrate tips into their Bitcoin transactions. These are recorded by wait staff and factored into their paperwork at the end of the night, much like a credit card tip.

No tour of Portland is complete without a visit to food carts, so our next stop was Whiffies Fried Pies in the pod at southeast 12th and Hawthorne, just one block away from Madison’s. Whiffies makes sweet and savory fried handpies that I’ve enjoyed many times in the past. Tom and I both opted for the BBQ brisket and mozzarella pie, which came out steaming hot and delicious. This is my pick for the best place to trade bitcoins for food in Portland.

Just like at Papa G’s, checkout here was completed by scanning a QR code linked to the owner’s account.

Along with its coffee shops, breweries, and food carts, Portland’s hospitality industry is famous for its strip clubs. Out of town guests make a point to visit them, the local alt-weekly reviews their steak offerings, and the likes of Tyler Cowen and Josh Barro comment on their economic strategies. While there are plenty of sleazy ones, others feel like good dive bars that just happen to have naked women in them. It’s a strange dynamic, perhaps best summed up like this: In other cities, you go to the strip club and don’t tell your wife. In Portland, your wife invites you.

Thorough research demanded that we conclude our evening at the Kit Kat Club, a new bar that claims to be the first strip club to accept Bitcoin. (This is only the second nerdiest reason I’ve gone to a strip club, the first being the time I went to the Boom Boom Room to see magician Reed McClintock perform card tricks.)

Implausible as the idea seemed, we hoped that this might mean that one could tip performers in Bitcoin, perhaps through creative use of tattoos and QR codes. Alas, that isn’t the case, and for obvious reasons they don’t want customers using phones that could just as easily be recording video as transferring currency. That aspect of the business remains a cash affair. (That said, it seems that an enterprising, tech-savvy dancer could set herself up to accept Bitcoin individually. Paging Lynsie Lee.)

The bar incorporates aspects of cabaret, with an emcee and themed performances, but it’s still very much a strip club. The staff was fun and friendly. Stumptown Dumplings offers food; their pork dumplings with chili hoisin were pretty good, though they require a separate non-Bitcoin transaction. My only knock against the place would be the beer selection, which is bottle-only and dominated by mass market lagers. Is there much of an overlap between people who spend bitcoins and people who go to strip clubs? I have no idea, but if there is, Kit Kat is the club they’re looking for.

Below, a few assorted thoughts and observations from our Bitcoin crawl…

Ease of use: Getting set up with Bitcoin was easy. I signed up with CoinBase for my primary account, linked that to my checking account to purchase Bitcoin, and transferred Bitcoin to a Mycelium wallet on my cell phone to spend while we were out.

Integration: Though all of our transactions went smoothly, Bitcoin payments aren’t yet easily integrated into the point of sale systems of the places we visited. In some cases, the money was sent to an owner who wasn’t on the premises. Staff could potentially verify transactions by watching a customer’s phone screen, but this is hard to monitor closely. At Madison’s they asked for a name and phone number as back up. Right now people paying with Bitcoin are early adopters and trust is high, but better integration with POS systems would make bar and restaurant use of Bitcoin more secure.

Tipping: As mentioned above, Madison’s was the only one of the four bars and restaurants we visited that factored tipping into their accounts. At every other stop we needed cash for tipping staff, making it impractical to spend a night out using only Bitcoin. (However if a restaurant wanted to switch to a percentage service charge model, that would be easier to handle.)

Privacy: I think that only one of the businesses we patronized generated a unique address for each Bitcoin transaction. Since the blockchain documenting Bitcoin transactions is public, anyone who knows the address used by a business can see how much money it has received. Right now this is a small enough part of their volume to be of little concern, but if Bitcoin becomes more popular one can imagine that they may not want to broadcast their sales so easily.

Volatility: It should go without saying that the volatility of Bitcoin prices is a concern for businesses to consider. Right now, I doubt many local businesses would have any trouble converting their Bitcoin receipts to dollars if they don’t want to carry a large balance. On the other hand, if they’re optimistic about Bitcoin’s future value, they may want to hold on to them.

New customers: Perhaps the best reason to start accepting Bitcoin now is to attract new customers. There are people who want to spend bitcoins and they currently have few options for where to do so. There is a benefit to being one of the first in an industry to accept the currency, both for being discovered by new clients and for getting press coverage. Even if one is skeptical of Bitcoin and rapidly converts all sales to dollars, it could be worthwhile to get on board before competitors do.

Advantages over credit cards: Credit card transactions take time to post, they can be reversed if a customer protests, and the associated fees are significant. Standard Bitcoin transactions are fast, irreversible, and cheap. (It is possible to structure Bitcoin transactions so that they can be arbitrated and reversed, but getting a refund for a standard exchange requires the retailer’s consent.) I doubt Bitcoin will replace Visa anytime soon, but these are advantages for a small business to consider.

One additional way restaurants might use Bitcoin is to hold reservations. Popular restaurants lose revenue when a reserved table sits empty. Even if a restaurant takes a credit card number to charge in the case of a no-show, it’s possible that the customer will contest the payment. Restaurants could instead require a deposit of Bitcoin to hold a table and then either return it when the party arrives or deduct an equivalent amount from the bill.

Taxation: Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to accepting Bitcoin is figuring out how to factor it into one’s taxes. This seems to be a gray area at the moment and could get complicated.

Bottom line: There’s a lot of room for expansion when it comes to accepting Bitcoin. Integrating it into one’s business will probably get easier over time, but there are also advantages to being among the first to try it out.

Spirit of Sri Lanka: Coconut arrack

My trip to Sri Lanka was primarily dedicated to tea, but along the way we made a point to explore as many aspects of the local drinks culture as possible. For distilled spirits, that meant coconut arrack, the country’s signature and most popular spirit.

To prevent confusion, it’s best to start with what coconut arrack is not. It’s not Batavia arrack, the Indonesian spirit distilled from sugar cane and red rice. It’s also not Mediterranean arak or raki, the anise-flavored liqueur. Though these spirits may share a common etymology, the similarities end there. The tastes and methods of production are completely different, and they’re not substitutes for each other.

Sri Lankan coconut arrack is distilled from nectar drawn from coconut flowers, collected by “toddy tappers.” This nectar rapidly ferments into a low-alcohol beverage called toddy. Sadly I did not have an opportunity to try this, but it’s photographed below.

The fermented toddy is distilled and aged in barrels of oak or halmilla, an indigenous tree species. After ageing it’s bottled and sold in the ubiquitous “wine shops,” which purvey all kinds of alcoholic beverages.

In every example that I encountered, spirits were purchased by walking up to a window display and ordering from a cashier who retrieves the requested bottles and completes the transaction. Even if the alcohol counter was within another store, it was completely cordoned off. I’m guessing this is a legal requirement. Regardless, outside of the airport duty free store I didn’t come across any place where one could freely roam the shelves.

The shop windows range from utilitarian…

… to more upscale.

As seen above, a lot of the big global brands are here. There’s also a variety of coconut arrack to choose from. The cheapest of these can be had for about three US dollars per 375 ml bottle. At the higher end, I found an offering from Mendis with an eighteen year age statement that sold for about $35 for 700 ml. In total, I sampled about eight different bottlings of coconut arrack, and brought four home with me.

One word of advice about buying arrack in Sri Lanka: Read the fine print! One of the bottles I picked up was awful. So awful, in fact, that not even a bus of bartenders would drink it. A glance at the label revealed the reason. Just as there are mixto tequilas that blend agave with neutral spirits, there are coconut arracks that do the same with neutral spirits and distilled toddy. But whereas mixto tequilas require at least 51% of the spirit to come from agave, the percentage of coconut spirits in some arracks is as low as 3%. The ones I tried have nothing but price to recommend them.

The pure arracks, though, can be quite nice. They strike me as most comparable to rum, though with a distinctive floral note and brightness. Barrel ageing contributes hints of vanilla and smooths out the spirit.

Fortunately, one no longer has to go all the way to Sri Lanka to try it. White Lion VSOA is now available in the United States, produced by Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka. The VSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” an abbreviation used to comply with American labeling regulations regarding the word “arrack.” It’s definitely among the best I’ve tried and worth seeking out for a unique addition to one’s bar. (White Lion also provided the toddy photos above.)

One more word of advice when shopping for alcohol in Sri Lanka: Keep an eye on the sky. Poya, which fall about every thirty days and follow the lunar calendar, are religious holidays. If there’s a full Moon, the sale of alcohol is forbidden. Even in hotel bars catering to tourists, you will be greeted with a sign like the one above. Fortunately our hosts warned us of this the day before, and our bus of thirsty bartenders was well rationed with local beers and arrack.

Speaking of beer, the one above was my favorite of the ones I tried in Sri Lanka. Most of the beers sold here are refreshing lagers, but this was a full-bodied stout. Was I man enough to deserve it? Maybe not, but I enjoyed it anyway.

By this time in our trip we’d made it well up into the hill country to Nuwara Eliya, once known as “Little England” for its popularity with the British. I understand the appeal. Up here the weather is comfortably temperate compared to the heat and humidity along the coast. It’s no wonder the British moved inland and upward, bringing colonial architecture, a golf course, and billiard rooms with them. Visiting the Grand Hotel is like stepping back in time a hundred years, with wi-fi.

Indidentally, I wonder now if the American drinks writer Charles Baker stayed in the same hotel. In the foreword to Jigger, Beaker, and Glass, he mentions spending “two days in Newara Eyliya, hill station back of Colombo, Ceylon, to get our breath.” On that same adventure he also went to visit a friend at Galle Face…

“… where we swam in the blood-warm Indian Ocean and drank enough of his Flying Fish cocktails to do, and lay on the cool sand and listened to Tauber sing Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz on the gramophone. Then when we swam again we slipped out of our suits to make the water feel better, and finally, when it was very late indeed, we dressed and said goodnight and vowed eternal friendship to our host; then for precisely no reason at all dismissed our waiting carriage with a flourish of gross overpayment and walked all the way back in our evening clothes through a new quiet rain to the jetties and the motor launch, just in time to prevent one of our best American cruising friends from consummating bribery of of the Quartermaster of the good ship RESOLUTE into letting him hoist a purchased baby girl elephant — whom he said was Edith, and over whom he politely held a Burmese parasol of scarlet oiled silk — from a hired barge onto the forward hatch in a sling!”

And, well, you get the picture.

The Grand Hotel is home to one of Dilmah’s T Bars, cafes in which one can order a nearly full range of Dilmah teas. Whether coming down to it for tea in the morning or sitting outside late into the night with a hookah, I loved this place.

On our final night here, we each gave a presentation on various ways to incorporate tea into cocktails. For my own, I opted to go with a riff on classic punch technique, which often uses tea instead of water to dilute the strength of the higher proof ingredients. Given how much coconut arrack I was hauling around with me, I wanted to use that too.

Teamaker’s Punch
500 ml Dilmah green tea
100 g palm sugar
7 oz lemon juice
6 oz Damrak gin
3 oz White Lion coconut arrack
cinnamon
nutmeg

Brew the tea and then pour it hot into a punch bowl with the palm sugar. Using a muddler, crush the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients, grate nutmeg and cinnamon atop the punch, and slip in an ice block or ladle into ice-filled punch glasses. (In Nuwara Eliya I used jaggery, but I’ve adapted the recipe to palm sugar, which I find more readily here.)

And, finally, remember not to let good punch go to waste.

[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols, Dilmah, and White Lion.]