Exclusive: KUU Owner Speaks Out On Bad Assumptions Regarding TABC “Refilling Bottles” Citation—Updated
KUU, the acclaimed Japanese restaurant in Gateway Memorial at 947 Gessner, was one of several establishments that the Houston Chronicle listed as being in violation of a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rule about “refilling bottles” on September 14. Shortly afterward, Eater Houston reported on the Houston Chronicle story.
While the headline of the Houston Chronicle article didn’t accurately represent all businesses described in the article (“Texas businesses busted by TABC this year for refilling, substituting alcohol”) the Eater Houston went a step further and made an assumption in theirs: “Houston Area Restaurants Busted for Refilling Bottles With Inferior Booze”. KUU owner Peter Ma says that allegation is completely false.
The Houston Chronicle’s own article quotes the vice president of operations of another establishment, Whiskey Cake, who says that it didn’t refill bottles with alcohol at all.
“Whiskey Cake had two of its locations cited by TABC this summer because they were repurposing empty whiskey bottles for water and tea service, vice president of operations Scott Sharrer told Chron.com Thursday morning. This was a common practice at all six Whiskey Cake locations for years in its effort to reduce their carbon footprint. Despite previous visits from TABC at Whiskey Cake locations, the commission only decided to cite the restaurants this summer, Sharrer said.”
KUU’s situation is another case of the reality being much less titillating and insidious than the headline indicates. Ma says, “We were creating cocktails by infusing cigar smoke into whiskey and we were using a previously emptied gin bottle as a container. We were cited for not removing or destroying the TABC stamp label after we sold out the gin before reusing the bottle. We are by no means attempting to mislead customers by substituting an inferior product.”
Infusions, or adding ingredients to liquor for enhanced or additional flavors, are very common in craft cocktails. (Another example is adding lemongrass to vodka and letting it steep for a few days to create a Thai-inspired cocktail.)
Update, October 2, 2017, 7:10 p.m.: To verify Ma’s claims, we requested the TABC records regarding KUU’s “administrative violation.” As shown in the screenshot from the case file below, the TABC inspector did report that the issue was refilling bottles with infused liquor (as well as lemon juice) without removing the tax stamp.
TABC’s hard-and-fast rules and citations have no facility for nuance or distinction. The environmentally conscientious emphasize “reuse and recycle,” but TABC has no accommodation for the practice. That’s to prevent less ethical businesses from taking advantage of the old, scummy refill-with-cheap-booze practice, but without further investigation, there’s no way to distinguish between an innocent goal and a fraudulent one.
One of KUU’s claims to fame, according to Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook, is “a revolving parade of seasonal specials — including fish and shellfish flown in from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market.” That is from her Top 100 Restaurants 0f 2017 write-up from last week. In fact, KUU has landed on Cook’s list every year since it opened. So, with an emphasis on high quality, it doesn’t make sense to swap cheap booze for the good stuff.
With the ability to shine a big, bright light on wrongdoing, journalists fill an extremely necessary watchdog role in society. However, without proper research, articles can cause needless reputational harm to businesses.
Ma says that KUU has adjusted its bartending practices so as to never have a refilling bottles citation again. “We have been using new containers and bottles for crafted liquor ever since. Lesson learned. Stricter bar procedures have also been implemented and enforced.”
Updated, 9/28/2017, 1:33 p.m.: Public information officer Chris Porter of TABC has the following to say about “refilling bottles” citations in general:
What the law states is that any alcoholic beverage served out of a bottle with the tax ID stamp has to be the original product sold by the distributor. Obviously infusions are allowed in the bars, but what needs to happen that infusion needs to be put into a new bottle that does not have that tax ID stamp on there, or it can be put into a previously used bottle that doesn’t have the stamp or a label for the original type of liquor.
Porter says that why the specifics of KUU’s citation would need to be requested from the TABC Open Records department, Ma’s explanation “certainly sounds legitimate,” adding, “There’s a difference: there’s substitution, which is when they replace the booze with something cheaper, and then there’s refilling. What [the law] is intended to do is prevent people from dodging the taxes that are due on mixed beverage receipts.”