A few months ago, Jamie Patrick was visiting Escazu Chocolates every weekend, buying tequila chocolates, Cherry Vokda or maybe a box made with single-malt scotch.
She’d buy them by the box.
“It was such an important niche to us,” she said. “I’d love to tell you they’d last through the weekend, but …”
Danielle Centeno works the counter at Escazu Chocolates.
The Amaretto confections are no more. Same with tequila, port, beer or any other alcohol owners Hal Parson and Danielle Centeno could think to mix with their wares.
In March, Escazu was visited by a food inspector with the Department of Agriculture, who informed them that putting alcohol in chocolates is against North Carolina law.
“We could have an ABC permit and serve alcohol by the shot,” Parson said. “We could get people drunk.”
But they have never had any problems with patrons under 21 trying to buy the chocolates.
“I don’t even know how much you’d have to eat [to get a buzz],” Centeno said.
The law, NC Gen. Stat. 12-106-129 (3)(b), permits the sale of a confectionary containing 0.5 percent alcohol or less derived solely from the use of flavoring extracts. It was approved in 1939.
For Escazu, it means a loss of big business. Customers who used to come in and buy eight alcohol-chocolates and two regular sweets now just buy the latter two. Some customers came only for the alcohol treats and now don’t come at all.
Non-acoholic chocolates on display at Escazu.
Patrick, who used to buy a box a week, now visits Escazu mostly for drinks.
“We eventually came here less,” she said “We love the people who own it and we will continue to support the shop. But we were coming here every weekend when they sold alcohol chocolates.”
And it’s not just Escazu. As the Raleigh News & Observer reported in April, chocolatier Reginald Savage’s alcohol chocolates were also a big hit – until someone from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services called him in late March.
Centeno argues it helps the state, too; she used to buy the high-end liquor used in her chocolates from the ABC store, the same way she visits markets to buy her other ingredients.
Centeno says other shops in the state sell such confections and inspectors in those areas “may overlook” the law.
Anita McMullan, a food compliance supervisor with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said that is not true: all 100 counties are under scrutiny from regular inspectors. However, she said, an inspector may not realize a business is not following the law until he or she discovers it.
McMullan said chocolatiers have the option to create an extract from alcohol to get the flavoring without the alcohol content.
Even then, the chocolates would have to go through testing to make sure they did not contain more than 0.5 percent.
“Yeah, it’s a law, but it’s a silly law,” Centeno said.
North Carolina legislators have tweaked laws regarding alcohol to suit business in the past. In 2005, at the urging of the state’s burgeoning microbrewing industry, legislators passed a law changing the alcohol limit in beers from 6 percent to 15 percent.
State Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Wake), who represents Escazu’s district, said she has heard suggestions of changing the law.
Due to general assembly rules, Ross could not file such a bill during the recently completed short session. Ross said she is open to the possibility of filing it in January.
Centeno said there is no way to create the confections without some alcohol, because the boiling process does not remove the content. She had no choice but to stop selling the popular chocolates.
“Basically, what we can do is change the law and we don’t have time for that,” she said. “If we do that, we don’t have time to make chocolates.”