Federal officials do not have to worry about holiday spirits.

When the Interior Department needed Gilbey's vodka and Schenley gin for the office of Secretary Cecil D. Andrus, it paid $257 for 20 cases of liquor worth $1,666. The spirits had been confiscated by federal authorities, and Interior paid only to have them shipped from San Francisco. a

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission discovered it was out of Beefeaters gin, Remy Martin Cognac and Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry. So Samuel J. Child, the commission secretary, authorized payment of $72.30 to ship $390 worth of confiscated liquor here from Chicago.

Not to be outdone, the General Services Administration, which takes orders for the impounded booze and runs the program, paid $27.20 to have bottles of 1967 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild red bordeaux and Pouilly-Fuisse white burgundy -- a $450 value -- flown from San Juan, Puerto Rico, for use in the office of then-GSA administrator Jay Solomon.

It is all part of a government-run program to supply federal agencies with the liquor that officials say is needed to conduct official business -- whatever the season -- at a substantial saving to the taxpayers.

"It's easy for an unthinking person to be scandalized by this," said Joseph D. Lafleur, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission official responsible for dispensing the good cheer at the agency and deputy chief of the commission's international programs. "It's a small amount of money that relates to an important aspect of foreign relations that has to take place."

The wine and spirits are part of the booty federal authorities confiscate when people or businesses fail to pay income or excise taxes or commit other violations, such as smuggling.

But while most of the confiscated property -- such as boats, rugs, and cars -- are sold at auctions, GSA regulations require that liquor be given to nonprofit organizations "for medicinal purposes" or to federal agencies authorized to spend money for entertainment.

John Suter, director of GSA's personal property disposal program, said he believes the regulations exist because Congress does not want GSA to compete with liquor outlets by reselling liquor. He said this method generally saves money, because the shipping costs are usually below what it would cost to buy the liquor in a store.

"In some cases," he said, "the transportation cost may exceed the cost of buying the liquor." But in most cases, he said, agencies find it easier to dip into shipping funds than entertainment funds, which generally amount to a few thousand dollars a year.

Suter said agencies may only use the confiscated liquor for "official functions," which he said does not include "staff functions."

But William Kendig, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior, said General Accounting Office interpretations indicate staff members may imbibe without any outsiders around.

Andrus breaks out the liquor when a high-level appointee comes or goes, he said. Recently, Kendig said, Andrus had "all the executives in for a session" and served confiscated liquor.

Interior, during the last fiscal year, was the thirstiest government agency.

It received 75 gallons of booze from GSA. Other steady customers were the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colo. (62 gallons), the Air Force (57 gallons), the Navy (46 gallons), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio (34 gallons), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (22 gallons) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (16 gallons).

Lafleur said the liquor is only used at the NRC when entertaining foreign officials who do business with the commission. He said that the $72.30 spent to ship in liquor from Chicago was well below the $390 value of the liquor.

"We do not allow it for staff functions," Lafleur said. "The remaining majority would say it does not make sense, provided it is used properly."

When Jay Soloman was GSA administrator, he used the agency's store of liquor for entertaining foreign officials and for official receptions for coming or going GSA officials.

The guests who unknowingly sipped confiscated Gordon's gin, Bacardi rum, and Johnnie Walker Red Label scotch included prosecutors probing GSA corruption scandals and reporters -- including this one.

But Solomon said he did not know GSA had ordered 1967 Chateau Lafite, which sells for between $30 and $50 a bottle, for his use.

"I'll be damned," Solomon said. "That's amazing."

John F. Galuardi, the GSA official who signed the document ordering the wine from Pureto Rico, said recently, "I don't know what Chateau Lafite is. I didn't use any of it. I don't remember it. What does it taste like?"

When Rowland C. Freeman III became GSA administrator last summer, he ordered the liquor disposed of. A Navy admiral, Freeman had banned hard liquor at lunchtime at his former command at China Lake, Calif.

The instruction was never carried out, and the Lafite and other well-known brands remain undisturbed at GSA's regional office buiding at 7th and D streets SW.

"I'm going to get rid of it," Walter V. Kallaur, who heads the regional office, said when asked about the liquor. "I don't understand how we could have kept it."

Kallaur said the booze will be distributed to nonprofit organizations in the Washington area for "medicinal purposes."