Are the rules interfering with your rights?

If you haven’t noticed by now, you have very few rights in this or any other country. You do have, however, a few privileges. But before you flaunt your new-found freedom understand that there are people in your government who are working overtime to curtail those privileges in the name of, well, they’ll think of something, that’s just what they do. Before you tweet this post with your comment that I’ve finally gone off my rocker, please read a little further.

There is hardly a country on this planet where the size of the government is shrinking. Oh there’s a lot of talk about candidates who are working to decrease the size of government, and there are whole parties based on the theory that smaller government is better. The truth is that even those who want to decrease the size of their government, first want to increase the size of the government by at least one individual, themselves, and a few others who have helped them get elected. Dictators aren’t a whole lot different when it comes to the size of the ruling force. And while I have been accused, correctly, or having a strong distaste for most elected officials, or those who take home a paycheck based on their ability to hold a job in the public administrative sector, there have been times in my life, albeit few of them, when I have actually agreed with a bureaucrat. Well, let me correct that, there have been exactly two times in the roughly half century of my life.

Just before the Labor Day weekend I canceled what would have been the third New York Ministry of Rum Festival. I was really looking forward to this event as were others who consider themselves connoisseurs of the spirit from as far away as Boston and the nation’s capitol. In the past this event has been a showplace for some of the best cane spirits available in the US. In the past two years, several brands have launched new products to an audience that appreciates quality and is respectful of the intoxicating effects of spirits. After both of the previous events all of the vendors took the time to personally tell me how much they liked holding this event at Papillon Bar & Bistro, a beautiful restaurant tucked under skyscrapers on 54th St in Midtown Manhattan, so as soon as the date was set for this year’s event, vendors and attendees began making arrangements to attend.  And then I found out that I didn’t have the correct permit to hold a spirits tasting in a restaurant. More correctly it seems that it is illegal to hold spirits tastings in restaurants anywhere in New York state.

I can hear you cry out, “Spirits tastings have been held in restaurants in New York for years!” And you’re right. They have been. (And the guy that got run over by the bus that turned right through the crosswalk, who is now under the bus, had the right of way as well.) But according to the current law, it is illegal to do spirits tastings in restaurants in New York. To date, no one has been cited for violating this provision of the State Statutes. Yes, these are State Laws, enacted by the State Legislature, and that’s the beginning of what will surely be a long, draw-out exercise in government inefficiency. Now I’m no lawyer, and I don’t play one on the internet, but after a few hours spent trying to make sense of the dos and don’ts of the current state of the New York State Laws, I’m only slightly less confused than I was before I made my first call to the State Liquor Authority. Let me back up, my first call left me more confused than I was when I got the notice from a major distributor that handles several brands that have participated in past events telling me that I didn’t have the right plenary permit to conduct a tasting in a licensed on premise restaurant where I had hosted tastings in the past. I won’t even try to make sense of that conversation that ended with the bureaucrat telling me that you couldn’t offer tastes of spirits in a restaurant because you might cheat the customer on the amount of spirit in the glass. To his credit, he did acknowledge that he wasn’t aware of any minimum amount of alcohol that a taste or cocktail had to legally contain. That was about the time that I mentally confirmed that that conversation was a waste of time and that to continue would serve no purpose, I was after all dealing with a government employee who takes home a paycheck to protect the public and the concept of rational thought was beyond the scope of our interaction then or in the future.

A few days later, my second phone call to the SLA was a complete and utter surprise. First, the person whose contact I had been given answered the phone instead of a secretary whose job it is to get rid of anyone who wants to talk to someone in the SLA office. Within a few minutes I began to understand that there are actually people, well at least one person, who understands that their job is not just to say no, like the guy in the Capitol One commercial, but rather to work toward a reasonable solution to the challenges of responsibly serving alcohol in New York in accordance with the State Law. My first clue that this person actually understood that saying no wasn’t going to work, was when he told me that he appreciated that prohibition didn’t work. What a revelation! For the second time in my life I was actually dealing with a bureaucrat that understands that just because there is a law on the books doesn’t mean that it is right, or that it is necessary to enforce that law for the public good.

It turns out that in early August, the SLA had a big meeting about how alcohol, specifically tastings, etc. should be handled in New York. It was really refreshing to hear a bureaucrat say that they didn’t want to shut down every tasting in New York without doing more work on the issue because there are a number of alcohol related tastings that have been going on for years. So without trying to upset the system myself I asked, “So what is the current enforcement policy on tastings?” While I tried not to gasp at the directness of my own question I moved the phone to the full extension of my long arm. “Well, at this time,” I heard a faint voice tell me and I dared to move the phone back to my ear, “we aren’t citing these events, providing . . .” And then it got a bit murky. The gist of the conversation is that the SLA is working hard to figure how they can enforce the laws regarding tastings, in restaurants, or at places with catering licenses, without upsetting the proverbial apple cart, too much.

So what’s going to happen. Well, in my case, it already has. I canceled the third New York Ministry of Rum Festival and here’s why. My crystal ball doesn’t work any better than yours, but it is my guess that at some point in the foreseeable future, there is going to be a publicized event that will be attended by a number of SLA employees, attorneys and others for the purpose of documenting what actually goes on at a spirits tasting. The event or events that are selected to be scrutinized will probably be analyzed and dissected by others who didn’t attend and these events will be used as examples of what is right or wrong with the current law. It is anyone’s guess what will happen when it is determined that the tasting broke the State Law, but I’m not in a position to defend myself against a citation for something that I know violates the State Law. I don’t have to agree with it, but I will, this time, respect the State Law and here’s why.

Personally, I don’t see a problem with a tasting that is held in a restaurant that is licensed to sell alcohol. The legal problem occurs when there is an admission charge, which there has to be in order to limit the number of attendees and to pay the cost of using a restaurant space during the busiest part of the day. And who is going to pay for the food, which isn’t available in off-premise businesses, which are the only legal place to currently conduct a tasting under New York Law. I’m also not in favor of events that are advertised on the internet as an opportunity to drink as much as you can in two or three hours. We’ve all seen the ads. I don’t want to deal with that kind of clientele and neither do the restaurants where I’ve hosted tastings in the past. Tastings that are held under a caterer’s permit run foul of the law because you can’t charge admission for such events and when you do you are essentially running an on-premise business in competition with surrounding businesses that do have an on-premise license and are paying thousands of dollars in property taxes and licensing fees every year.

So what’s the answer for someone who wants to host a responsible tasting? Well if it was simply up to the SLA, I think we would have a solution hashed out by the end of the year, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case. We’re dealing with State Laws that can only be amended by the State Legislature, when it gets around to it. New laws will have to be drafted, voted on and then passed before there can be a change. Another solution would be for the State Legislature to give the SLA the authority to act responsibly in making rules that protect the public good and allow spirits companies to act responsibly while marketing their products to the protected public. The good news is that at least one person in the SLA understands that prohibition didn’t work.

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