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What do college partyers, violin makers and cake decorators have in common?

The sale of Everclear, and all 190-proof liquor, is now banned in Maryland. (Scott Bauer/AP)

College partyers of Maryland, your lives will never the same. This school year, no longer can you and your roomies pile into the car, head to the liquor store and stock up on your favorite cheap, clear booze. Gone are the days of ignoring the “contents may ignite or explode” label and pouring freely into a jug of Hawaiian Punch. The jungle juice recipe you worked so hard to perfect is a waste. Because the sale of Everclear, and all 190-proof liquor, is now banned.

And who, in the state of Maryland, is most upset?

The people who make violins.

While the ban’s intended audience, binge-drinking college kids, has an endless variety of alcoholic substances to consume, violin makers in Maryland depend on 190-proof grain alcohol to create varnishes used in making and restoring their instruments.

It works like this: When a violin is chipped or broken, a new piece of wood often is used in the repair. When attached, the wood looks out of place because it has not been varnished. To make the violin look untouched, the new varnish must exactly match what already is on the violin.

The violin maker must dissolve a coloring substance called resin to paint onto the wood. The craftsman dissolves the resin in Everclear because, with its high alcohol content, it dries resins quickly, so the already tedious process can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. It looks good, too.

“There’s really nothing else that works,” said Silver Spring violin maker Howard Needham, who is hoarding the Everclear he has left.

The sale of the substance is also banned in the District, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, meaning the next closest place Needham can purchase Everclear is in Delaware. The Maryland law, which took effect June 30, does not make it illegal to own Everclear, just to sell it. So if Needham and his fellow violin makers can find it, they’ll be able to keep up work as usual.

The same quest is being taken up by another group experiencing collateral damage from the grain-alcohol ban:

Cake bakers.

Bakeries dissolve edible colored powder in Everclear, making a paste that can be painted onto fondant, the sculptable icing often seen on elaborate cakes.

“I swear, we don’t drink it!” said Bethesda bakery owner Leslie Poyourow, who noted that she has made cakes for Vice President Biden, J-Lo and even Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 visit to Washington.

Poyourow said it is possible to substitute vodka or lemon extract for grain alcohol, but those substances smell worse and don’t work as well. Randi Brecher, owner of Creative Cakes in Silver Spring, said that after 15 years of using 190-proof grain alcohol on cakes costing up to $2,000, she’s switching to 151-proof, which works almost as well.

Violin makers don’t have that liquor luxury: 151-proof has more water in the alcohol, defeating the purpose of using it for fast drying. Some makers use denatured alcohol, but that’s essentially poison poured into alcohol, said Baltimore violin maker Laurence Anderson. Anderson previously lived in Minnesota, where grain alcohol is also banned. He would have his family bring it to him from Indiana. Now, he’s hoping his son can bring it to him from Illinois.

“I can understand why they want to outlaw it,” Anderson said. “I just wish they made an exception for people in the arts.”

In Virginia, where any alcohol higher than 101 proof is illegal to sell, an exception for non-beverage uses such as for medicine or machinery cleaning, was written into the law. In Maryland, no mention of an exception or special permit was included in the ban.

A spokesman for the Maryland comptroller’s office said an existing alcohol permit system made available to laboratories and hospitals could be used to obtain Everclear in this situation, but violin makers didn’t seem to be aware of the exemption.

“This is the second blow to our industry,” said David Truscott of the Potter Violin Co. in Bethesda. The first blow, Truscott said, came in February, when the federal government banned imports of antique elephant ivory, a product commonly found in small quantities at the tip of violin bows. Truscott’s company can no longer purchase bows in Europe, where the ivory tips are legal, and bring them to the United States to sell.

This trouble for violin makers and cake decorators is, of course, not the intention of the Maryland law. All the lawmakers wanted was to keep Everclear out of college party punch.

“What we know is that if we make it more difficult for people to drink heavily, they will drink less,” said David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins University. The law was a product of Jernigan’s work with the Maryland Collaborative, a group of universities aiming to reduce college drinking.

Jernigan said grain alcohol is the most dangerous to drinkers because it is tasteless and odorless. That was the reason that Dick’s Last Resort, a restaurant chain with a location in Baltimore, used Everclear in its “trash can punch.” The drink was a concoction of grain alcohol, 151-proof rum, black raspberry liqueur and a fruit beverage mix. Now that the bar can’t use Everclear, the punch is less alcoholic, but, according to the bar, it tastes the same.

A commercial establishment such as Dick’s has legal limits on the strength of its drinks. Rowdy fraternity parties have no such restrictions. Every shot of grain alcohol poured is almost 21 / 2 times as strong as a regular shot of vodka.

And that’s what the partyers will have to make do with now. Unless, of course, they plan a road trip to Delaware — perhaps hitching a ride with a violin maker.

Jessica Contrera is a staff writer at the Washington Post.



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