The current Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau was split from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 2003. ATF was moved to the Justice Department, where it focuses on firearms, explosives and violent crime.
Officials who regulate and tax alcohol and tobacco remained at Treasury, where they continue to ensure that wine doesn't contain pesticides and absinthe is free of thujone, the psychoactive ingredient — now banned — that gave it its hallucinogenic reputation.
That's how Dr. Abdul Mabud found himself overseeing 26 chemists at a lab in Beltsville, Md., that tests hundreds of bottles, cigarettes and perfumes every year.
One afternoon, Mabud holds aloft a jar of pure, clear alcohol containing a coiled king cobra, its hood flared and forked tongue extended. Surrounding it are smaller green snakes that appear to be biting each other's tails.
The snake liquor was submitted for consideration as an import from east Asia, where snakes are believed to increase virility.
"With that much snake in there, it's probably not a beverage," Mabud says, explaining why the shelves of America's liquor stores and supermarkets are free of giant, gin-soaked snakes.
Mabud traces his lab's history to 1886, when Congress passed steep taxes on margarine — at the time, an upstart competitor to the nation's dairy products. The 1886 law aimed to prevent crooked margarine-pushers from selling their product as butter. Treasury's first food-quality lab was set up to preserve butter's integrity.
Today, the bureau owns some of the most sophisticated equipment available, including the smoking machine, which can be set to inhale in at least three ways, depending on how long and hard the smoker being simulated prefers to puff: light, medium and Canadian. The last one is when the perforations around the cigarette's filter are blocked and the machine takes bigger, more frequent puffs. It was invented by the Canadian government, and does not necessarily reflect the actual smoking habits of Canadians, says Dawit Bezabeh, chief of the bureau's tobacco lab.
"That's the worst-case scenario," he says.
Officials are less chatty about a third agency priority: The diplomatically sensitive work of promoting the international alcohol and tobacco trade.
The bureau helps strike deals with other countries that have liquor industries, like the one with Peru and Chile over Pisco. The idea is to protect U.S. alcohol and tobacco producers from unfair competition. Jim Beam's prices might be easily undercut, for example, if an overseas firm was allowed to label something as bourbon even though it was aged in a cask that is neither charred nor oak nor new.
That's how the Tequila Working Group was born. Citing safety concerns, Mexico had threatened to stop exporting bulk tequila — a commodity that supports 500 U.S. bottling jobs. After the bureau agreed in 2006 to regular meetings with Mexico's tequila industry, Mexico backed down. The jobs were saved.
Until the early 2000s, the U.S. negotiated wine-making standards as part of a European wine trade group. As the American wine industry blossomed, officials began to believe that the group was favoring European wineries, for example, by refusing to endorse American agricultural methods. Every member of the group had veto power, and France was willing to use it.
The U.S. escaped Europe's dominance by joining with other oenological up-and-comers like Australia, Argentina, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa to form the World Wine Trade Group. The group encourages countries to accept each other's wine-making methods.
Its complicated history helps explain why the bureau looks and acts different from most government offices. As a tax-collecting agency, it wants to see its industries thrive. As a consumer-protection outfit tasked with keeping antifreeze-spiked wine off the market, the bureau must rein in dangerous, sloppy practices by industry members.