A few men and women gather near the counter table, eyeing the five neatly lined up full bottles of Seagram's V.O., MacNaughton's Canadian whiskey, Smirnoff vodka and Jim Beam bourbon. Glassware in odd shapes and sizes litters the table. The scene is not a bar but a laboratory and the people there are not drinking the liquor but testing it to make sure it is what its label says it should be.
While police-trained agents, "the guys who used to catch stills," scout around the state for suspiciously worn labels and dirty revenue stamps that signal an illegally refilled liquor bottle, laboratory technicians in Jessup are testing the samples the field agents pick up from their routine inspections of bars and restaurants in Maryland.
The alcohol testing program was started a little over a year ago by the Maryland Gasoline Tax Division in the same laboratory that tests the contents of the gasoline from service stations in the area. Alcohol testing uses much the same equipment and many of the same people involved in gasoline testing, which explains why the white walled, air-conditioned laboratory called the Motor Fuel Testing Laboratory smells very much like a gas station.
Sophisticated machinery with dials, meters, calibrated beakers, and unpronounceable names are attended to by men and women, some with white lab coats on over their blue jeans. The most impressive piece of equipment in the main room of the lab is a 12-gallon glass tank filled with bubbling liquid that gives off an orange glow and moves through a complex set of tubes.
"Oh, that's our distilled water machine," one chemist pointed out. "We use it for testing samples and for our Mr. Coffee machine."
With the other machinery, gasoline is tested for octane levels, vaporizing ability, and lead content. Liquor is tested to see if it is a lower quality brand than advertised. A sample of the alcohol is put into a gas chromatograph, which will identify the atomic structure of each chemical in the alcohol.
A pen attached to the machine will automatically sketch out each chemical as a particular rounded hump of a certain size and shape on a long, continuous sheet of grap paper. The pattern produced by the test sample will be compared with the graph pattern of an authentic sample of the liquor. If there is a discrepancy, the restaurant or bar that the test sample of the liquor. If there is a discrepancy, the restaurant or bar that the test sample came from is in trouble.
Alcohol tested during the past year from various bars and restaurants in the area has resulted in 22 charges of liquor license violation being brought, before county licensing boards and the courts. In the past three years the Jessup lab has tested sample representing over one and a half billion gallons of gasoline. Of the one billion gallons tested this year, 45 million failed to meet standards.
Three of the ten people who work in the lab are chemists, and one of them, supervisor Harwood Owings, has experience in analyzing such things as fertilizers and pesticides. The others have experience in laboratories or automobile work of some kind.
"I've been around gasoline almost all my life," boasted Walter Harris, who spent 29 years in the aviation section of the Marine Corps before coming to the state lab to supervise the five octane test engines that run all day long at the lab. Harris, who lost some of his hearing during his work in the Marine Corps, is bothered by neither the noise of the engines nor the smell of the gasoline at the laboratory. Barbara Stansbury, who runs one of the engines, finds both a little disconcerting, but likes her job anyway.
"I guess it's in my blood," she replied. "My father was always interested in mechanical things, and I like to work with my hands."
"Running these engines is an art," Owing commented. "The engines ae temperamental and you have to understand them. If there's a change in the atmospheric pressure outside, a smart operator will pick it up without even looking at a barometer!"
State officials proudly claim that because their lab is so efficient and their agents so thorough in their field inspections, the percentage of bad products among the samples has gradually decreased each year.
Kent C. Nicodemus, the chemist who does much of the gasoline and alcohol composition testing, takes his credit nonchalantly. He pointed out the digital meters that register the amount of lead in a nonleaded gasoline to the thousandth gram and explained the automatic graphs which produce reams of paper with erratic pen lines, each recording the presence of a certain chemical in the liquor.
"I get to do a little detective work in special cases when we can't identify something in an alcohol sample," he commented, "but in general this lab is not on the frontiers of science. I'm not ashamed of what we do in this lab, but anyone here who calls himself a scientist is really overrating the kind of work he does."