Mint julep or gin and tonic? The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer group, thinks there's one more factor to be considered before you belly up to the bar for your favorite summertime cocktail: Urethane content.
Dozens of distilled liquors and some wines have been found to contain potentially hazardous levels of urethane, a chemical used as an industrial solvent and a known carcinogen in laboratory animals. The chemical isn't an additive; it forms naturally during the fermentation process.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration started investigating urethane levels in liquor products after Canada set legal standards for the chemical in 1985, but says it won't take action until the liquor industry has determined how it can change manufacturing processes to reduce urethane levels. "Our position is that we're waiting until the industry can give us a number they can live with," said FDA spokesman Jim Greene.
"Nobody knows how it gets there," said industry attorney Nancy Buc. "It's unbelieveable but it's true. It's not added deliberately. It has to come as a reaction byproduct, and it's devilishly difficult to find out where it comes from."
In the meantime, CSPI officials argue that the FDA should release the results of its tests so consumers can decide for themselves which liquor products they wish to buy. The FDA recently declined to release brand names to the group, citing confidentiality provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
Greene said the agency believed the numbers could be "misleading," since urethane levels can vary between batches of liquors and wines.
The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms released the names and test results to The Washington Post last week, however, and the results suggest that the highest urethane levels occur in bourbons and brandies, especially fruit-flavored brandies. Liqueurs, particularly those from eastern European countries, also showed high levels.
Gin, vodka, rum, tequila, beer and most table wines showed no urethane or relatively low levels. Fortified wines, such as ports and sherries, were slightly more likely to have elevated urethane levels.
Of 802 brands tested by BATF or manufacturers, 95 failed to meet the Canadian standards for urethane content. Some brandies contained nine times the acceptable levels of urethane.
Here are the liquor brands that failed to meet the Canadian standards and their urethane content, as measured in tests conducted by or submitted to the BATF laboratories in Rockville and San Francisco.
Bourbon (150 parts per billion Canadian standard): Rebel Yell (152); Jenkins Four-Year-Old Blended Whiskey (168), Ezra Brooks (2 samples, 161 and 169); Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 (15 samples, ranged from 118 to 180); McCormick Special Selection (169); Old Fitzgerald (175); Bourbon Supreme (188); Jim Beam (221); Old Charter (232); Glenmore Bulk (2 samples, 236 and 239); Georgia Moon (238); Old Taylor Six-Year-Old (4 samples, 246 to 283); Old Forester (4 samples, 246 to 310); Early Times Old Style (2 samples, 250 and 269); Clear Corn Kentucky Corn Whiskey (261); Jim Beam Straight Rye (265); Colonel's Pride (273); Colonel Lee (312); Evan Williams (2 samples, 206 and 321); Heaven Hill (321); Kentucky Gentleman (330); Hiram Walker Ten High (339); Virginia Gentleman (375); Beams Choice Old No. 8 (406); Albertson's (2 samples, 517 and 551); Kentucky Choice (543); Importer's Four-Year-Old (616).
Brandy (400 ppb standard): Slivovica Plum (438); G. Miolo Kirsch (470); Noyan de Poissy Apricot (531); Zziluoium Plum (570); Korte Kirsch (577); Barack Palinka (597); Polmos Plum (669); Carmel Slivovitz (770); Ja Baczewski Plum (779); Barack Palinka Zwack Apricot (2 samples, 820 and 1,111); Peosetes O-Szilvorium Slivovitz (2 samples, 900 and 922); Kedem Slivovitz Plum (904); Blackforest Brombeergeist Blackberry (912); Navip Slivovitz (3 samples, 1,000 to 1,548); Kirsch Cherry (1,006); Maraska Kirsch (1,059); Manastirka Slivovitz Plum (two samples, 1,256 and 2,009); Klekgvaca Plum (1,339); Slovaska Plum (1,602); Jelinek Plum (2 samples, 1,633 and 2,353);
Manastirka Slivovitz (1,712); Slivovice Slivovitz Plum (1,842); Barak Palinka Apricot (1,916); Jacquins Kirschwasser (2,078); R. Jelinke Slivovitz (2 samples, 2,100 and 2,454); Bols Kirsch Wasser (5 samples, 1,497 to 7,194); O-Barach Apricot (1,846); Mirabelle Plum (2 samples 1,990 and 2,625); Bols Kirsch (2,380); Kirsch de Bong (2,416); Schladerer Black Forest Cherry (2,854); Zwack Kirsch (2,886); Kirsch Vedrenne (3,233); General Sutter Kirsch (3,781); Mirabelle Vedrenne (3,819); Quetsch Plum (12,000).
Liqueurs (400 ppb standard): Charlain Cream Liqueur (513); Alpen Hazelnut Cream (527); Polmos Wisniowka Cherry Cordial (730); Ponche Crema Creme (793); Verpoorten Advocaat Hazelnut & Egg (2 samples, 813 and 1,170); Izarra Vieille Liqueur du Pays Basque (924); Vedrenne Orange (1,450); Prunelle de Bourgogne (3,977).
Fortified wines (100 ppb standard): Taylor Empire Cream Sherry (105); Madiera Cossard (108); Gallo Cream Sherry, lot 1259 (123); Ficklin Vineyards California Port (138); Gallo Sherry, lot 1000 (152); Richard's White Port (251).
Table Wines (30 ppb standard): Weingartemer Trappenberg. '83 (31); Cabernet Sauvignon Magyar '81 (32); French Rabbit Vin Rouge (32); Japanese Plum Gekkeikan Plum Wine (32); Cha~teau Les Justices (Medeville) Sauternes '83 (32); Chateau Doisy-Vedrines Sauternes '83 (32); Carmel Blackberry (33); Achaia Clauss Demestica (33); Sta. Rosa Rose (Achata-Clauss) (34); Christian Bros. Cabernet Sauvignon (34); Rieussec Sauternes '83 (36); Guimarra Pinot Noir (39); Galleano California Zinfandel (40); La Rioja Alta Reserva 904, '70 (43); Maison Ginestet Me'doc (44); Co~te de Nuits-Villages '81 (46); Galleano California Burgundy (46); Firestone Gewu rztraminer (48); Vina Real Gran Resirva '73 (49); Carmel Samson Sauvignon Blanc '85 (62); Imperial Mavrodaphine (72); Los Vineros Chardonnay (78); Cha~teau de la Maltroye (80); Montevina Chardonnay (102); Okura Gekkeikan Sake (115); Batonet Cuve'e Mai~tre Pierre-Alfred (124); Shirayuki Japanese Sake (132); Hwato Sze Chuan Dah Poo Chiew (148); Ozeki Sake Rocks (245); Tzepao Sanpien Jiu (257); Silver Gekkeikan Sake (286); Shou Wu Chiew (297); Hsiang Yang Ginseng Juice (410); Premium Koshu Sake (411); Yang Cheng Loon Fu Feng Chiew (715).