Mezcal, Citizens United, and Donald Trump

My latest article for Reason combines three of my favorite things: mezcal, free speech, and insulting Donald Trump. “Donald eres un pendejo,” says a popular campaign from Ilegal Mezcal:

Messaging like Ilegal’s has struck a chord, but it’s also in tension with the idea, popular on the political left, that corporations should not engage in political speech. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, it has become common for liberals to assert that corporations don’t have free speech rights, that money is not speech, and that corporate expenditures intended to influence politics can be restricted unproblematically. A question worth asking then is: Would a hypothetical President Trump have constitutional authority to forbid mezcal companies from calling him a pendejo?

Nothing that Ilegal has done so far would have violated election laws as they stood before Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. At the time of the decision, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act applied only to broadcast, cable, and satellite communications that explicitly mentioned a candidate by name. But if that decision had gone differently, it’s also easy to imagine election laws being extended in ways that would have a chilling effect on advocacy.

Read the whole thing here.

Share

Assorted links

For my first contribution to the Distiller weblog, I take a look at the sudden arrival of rice whiskeys on the American market, including Kikori from Japan and Vinn from right here in Portland, Oregon.

I was also a guest on Greg Pulscher’s “Free to Brew” podcast out of North Carolina, discussing corporate welfare for craft brewers. (See my recent Reason article on the topic.) On that note, we can unfortunately add Ballast Point to the list of West Coast breweries getting public subsidies to fund their East Coast expansion.

And speaking of Reason, Baylen Linnekin quotes me in his column today about one of the USA’s most ridiculous alcohol laws, Utah’s “Zion Curtain.”

Share

How the FDA will snuff out innovation in cigars and e-cigs

I awoke yesterday morning to the news I’ve been dreading for years: The FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products announced that it will extend its authority over cigarettes to all tobacco products, including cigars and e-cigarettes. When I last covered this topic, the FDA was considering a proposal (“Option 2”) to exempt premium cigars from some of the agency’s more onerous regulations. I was optimistic that the agency might take this path, allowing it to concentrate resources where they might do more good and avoiding conflict with politically vocal cigar smokers. Unfortunately, as I write at Reason, that optimism was misplaced:

As of yesterday, Option 2 is dead. And so, perhaps, is innovation in the cigar business.

Cigars that were on the market in 2007 will be allowed to remain for sale, but any cigars introduced since then will have to endure the same sort of regulatory hassles as Hestia tobacco. If they can’t prove they’re substantially equivalent to existing products—not just in their composition or their effects on smokers, but in their essentially unknowable potential health impacts on the population as a whole—then they will be ordered off the market.

It’s hard to predict what those applications will cost, but the most likely outcome is that the market for cigars will soon become a lot less diverse and a lot more boring. (Cuban cigars, which by definition were not legally on the US market in 2007, will obviously not be grandfathered in.)

Read the rest here.

Share

New at Reason: The latest threat to mezcal

This week at Reason, I look at the proposed Mexican law that threatens small producers of mezcal:

That legislation is NOM 199, a proposal that would place additional restrictions on some of the least advantaged producers of agave spirits just as just as mezcal is finally beginning to receive the global acclaim it deserves. These distillers are already forced to compete without using the word “mezcal” on their labels; the term is governed by Denomination of Origin (DO) regulations that limit its use to just seven states in Mexico. Producers outside of those regions make spirits historically and informally known as mezcal, but they’re not permitted to call it that on their labels or when exporting. Instead, they must market their products as “destilado de agave,” or agave distillate.

This is a truthful description of their product, though many producers resent being excluded from the mezcal DO and make the case that use of the word has precedent in a much larger area than current law recognizes. But all definitions of spirits by geographic borders involve some arbitrary demarcation, and if this were only a debate about where to draw the line for where the word “mezcal” can be put on a bottle, it would be a less interesting story. NOM 199 goes even further, banning producers not only from calling their product mezcal, but requiring them to abandon use of the word “agave” as well. A new word, “komil,” would be forced upon them. Critics assert that this would further marginalize the producers of these spirits, many of whom are poor and live far from the central Mexican government.

Read it all here.

Share

Crony capitalists of craft beer

My latest story for Reason looks at how some of the biggest names in craft beer are raking in millions of dollars in public subsidies to fund their expansion:

“Virginia is for beer lovers,” Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) proclaimed at a recent press conference. He was obviously not referring to a lawsuit challenging the state’s use of an antiquated “habitual drunkard” law to jail indigent citizens without due process, but rather to $3 million in corporate welfare from the state’s Commonwealth Opportunity Fund that he approved to lure Bend, Oregon based Deschutes Brewing toRoanoke for the construction of their first East Coast brewery.

For those of us who follow the beer industry, the announcement stirred feelings of déjà vu. It was less than two years ago that McAuliffe was tapping a keg from San Diego’s Stone Brewing and putting Virginia taxpayers on the hook for a $5 million grant to bring Stone to Richmond. That was in addition to a $1.5 million economic development grant, a $500,000 sustainability grant, and $31 million in bonds from the city to build a brewery and bistro.

Read the whole thing, which includes many more breweries, including Stone’s new operation in Berlin.

Share

The blend that dare not speak its name

Today at Reason, I write about antiquated liquor laws that forbid producers from being completely honest with consumers:

Like many other whisky brands, Compass Box doesn’t distill their own spirits. They source whisky from other producers to create unique, proprietary blends. And like most companies making blended whisky, they tend to keep their precise recipes secret.

But for these two blends they took the unusual step of posting infographics on their website that provided detailed breakdowns of every component whisky, including the source distillery, tasting notes, the exact proportion each takes up in the blend, the type of cask used for ageing, and the length of time each whisky spent in barrel.

For the type of whisky drinker who’s willing to shell out three figures for an exclusive bottle, Compass Box’s complete transparency is a welcome departure from brands that obscure the provenance of their spirits with varying degrees of honesty. But at least one competitor viewed Compass Box’s openness as a violation of liquor marketing regulations. An anonymous distiller contacted the Scotch Whisky Association, a trade group for Scotch, who in turn informed Compass Box that its detailed disclosure was illegal.

The article covers not just whisky in the European Union, but also gin and aquavit in the United States. Read the whole thing.

I was also quoted in The Wall Street Journal this week in an article about reviving hot drinks made with beer. Readers interested in trying these drinks at home should pick up my book, which has an entire chapter dedicated to “hot helpers.”

Share

Beer cocktails finally legal in Virginia

My former home of Virginia is known for its archaic, overly strict alcohol laws, but there is some good news from the Old Dominion: Beer cocktails are finally legal. Well, some of them anyway:

Virginia law allows restaurants to mix spirits with beer or wine “pursuant to a patron’s” order, meaning that individual cocktails prepared for a customer are perfectly legal. Storing drinks that mix spirits with wine or beer remains illegal, however, unless that mixture can be passed off as sangria (defined vaguely by the mixologists in the state legislature as containing “brandy, triple sec, or other similar spirits”).

Most of the drinks I write about would therefore be legal in Virginia, but there’s a long tradition of batched beer punches that the state’s bars are still forbidden from serving. Ale Punch, a recipe from the great nineteenth century American bartender Jerry Thomas, or Blow My Skull, the favorite of an eccentric Tasmanian governor known for drinking his subordinates under the table, would both fall afoul of the rules. So too would “Beer Nog,” a contemporary take on egg nog that adds porter to the usual mix of brandy, eggs, and cream. And if any Virginians want to go wassailing in the winter, they’ll have to settle for low-proof versions of the beverage that do not fortify the warm ale with stronger spirits.

That’s good news for my book Cocktails on Tap. Read the rest of my article at Reason for a look at more of the country’s liquor laws, and also check out fellow Portland writer Niki Ganong’s new book The Field Guide to Drinking in America, which breaks them down state by state.

Share

Gasp! New Orleans passes a smoking ban

In my first contribution to Eater, I put the New Orleans smoking ban into a national context:

As in most cities, New Orleans’ smoking ban debate centered on the trade-offs between the interests of business owners who fear lost patronage and the interests of customers and employees in avoiding secondhand smoke. It’s an apt time to inquire into what’s really at stake with smoking bans. Will the sky fall for bars and casinos in New Orleans? And will banning smoking save as many lives as advocates promise?

The answers may surprise you!

Share

Vaping in the Oregonian

In today’s Oregonian, I look back at a column I wrote in 2008 and say, “I told you so.”

When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Day 2009, Oregon ushered in its statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants. I was at the Horse Brass Pub, one of Portland’s most notoriously smoky drinking dens, enjoying one last cigar with a bunch of other patrons who were none too happy about the new rules.

The ban, we were told, was necessary to protect employees and customers alike from secondhand smoke. Health researchers had conducted dozens of studies attempting to show that exposure endangered nonsmokers. Some of the results were medically implausible, but ban advocates at least made the effort of demonstrating actual harm to actual humans.

Many of us doubted that the evidence really mattered. As I wrote in The Oregonian/OregonLive at the time, “Protecting workers is simply the polite fiction by which nonsmokers have imposed their will on an increasingly unpopular minority.”

We suspected this, but how could we prove it? What if there were a device that looked like a cigarette and mimicked the effects of smoking, yet emitted a mostly harmless vapor instead of tobacco smoke? If authorities tried to ban that too, without bothering to establish that it endangered anyone, then our suspicions would be vindicated.

That device exists. It’s called an e-cigarette. And sure enough, the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners is voting on whether to ban its use indoors. The Legislature, too, may expand the state’s smoking ban to cover vaping.

Read the whole thing.

Share

Hot take on beer

Today at The Atlantic, I have a literal “hot take” on beer:

If there’s one thing big beer marketers know, it’s that people like their beer cold. “It’s a simple fact that consumers love ice-cold beer, and we love providing it,” writes MillerCoors, touting their cold-activated labels with mountains that turn blue to indicate when beer “goes from cold … to Super Cold.” The problem of insufficiently frigid beer apparently plagues the American consumer and technology is here to help.

But since this is the middle of winter, consider an alternative suggestion. Why not drink hot beer?

Read the whole thing. If you find the drinks in the article intriguing, you should of course pre-order my book. There’s an entire chapter on these “Hot Helpers” with recipes for recreating them with modern ingredients.

[Photo courtesy of David L. Reamer and my publisher, Stewart, Tabori & Chang.]

Share

Announcing Cocktails on Tap

If it seems like I’ve been writing very little this year, there’s a good reason for that. I’ve actually be writing more than ever, but that effort has been going into my first full-length book. Since 2011 I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a book on beer cocktails. The road to publication is long and winding, and for a long time it looked like the project was not going to happen. Then in the fall of last year everything finally clicked into place, thanks to the work of my agent Jud Laghi. In December we signed a deal with Stewart, Tabori, and Chang to publish Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer.

The upside of being patient is that the book is far better than it would have been had I written it a few years ago. Stewart, Tabori, and Chang makes beautiful books, and my editor there, Laura Dozier, has been supportive the entire way of making this the definitive book on mixing with beer. You can see that commitment to quality in the cover above. And on the inside? Full-color photographs shot by David L. Reamer, whose most recent work includes the Toro Bravo and Le Pigeon cookbooks. A foreword by Stephen Beaumont, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer and The Pocket Beer Guide 2015. A deep dive into the weird history of beer cocktails, the best of my original drinks and collaborations with Ezra Johnson-Greenough and Yetta Vorobik, and contributions from some of the most creative bartenders I know. More than fifty recipes for cocktails and punches made the final cut. I’m sitting in a coffee shop now approving the final color proofs and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s all turned out.

Cocktails on Tap will be released on March 17, but you can pre-order it now. And please do! This book has been in the works for a long time and I can’t wait to get a copy into your hands.

Share

GMO labeling in Oregon

My latest makes the case against the Oregon ballot measure to require labeling of food made with GMOs:

Whole Foods would like to sell you on the virtues of the Rio Star organic grapefruit. “For juicing, Rio Star is the stand alone grapefruit” and is “widely viewed as the best” grapefruit grown in Texas, home to “some of the sweetest grapefruit in the world.” And despite originating from a breeding program that blasted grapefruits with radiation to scramble their DNA, eating them probably won’t kill you.

Read the whole thing.

Unsurprisingly, my views haven’t changed since this same debate came up in Washington last year.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

GMO labeling: Bad science, good politics

Rally to Support GMO Food Labeling

Over at The Umlaut, I have an essay up today about why mandatory GMO labeling is probably inevitable in the United States, and why that may not be a good thing:

I would be more sympathetic to the cause of GMO labeling if its advocates were not so intent on stigmatizing genetic engineering. Instead, whether for reasons of political expediency, profit, or simply poor judgment, they too often associate with any idea that could bolster their cause, regardless of its scientific merits. Thus we end up with labeling advocates on stage in front of a Whole Foods banner, sowing fear among foodies that exposure to genetically modified crops may cause autism in their children.

Read the whole thing here.

[Photo via CT Senate Democrats.]

Share