An old, closed-minded state law forced Reginald Savage to become open-minded - and the result tastes better than ever, he swears.
Savage, a Raleigh chocolatier whose alcohol-spiced chocolates are - make that were - sold as quickly as he made them, has had to get even more creative than usual to keep the flavors his customers covet without the state-forbidden rum, scotch and beer he used as spices.
Someone from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services called him in late March, he said. "They told me I had to cease and desist" selling the most popular creations "because they contained alcohol," he said.
That meant no more Genius Truffles, no more chocolate juleps, no more banana rum chocolates. "People are really gonna miss that," he said ruefully.
The Gen ius Truffle, sales of which he said "outpaced my other chocolates 2-to-1," was made using Guinness beer.
Under the state's Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, even vanilla extract - you know, the benign stuff you put in cookies and cakes or can dab behind your ears in an emergency when you run out of Brut before a big date - is illegal if its alcohol content is over 0.5 percent.
"We're not out to restrict business, but candy is associated with kids, and we don't want kids getting it," said Anita MacMullan, food compliance supervisor with the ag department.
Relax, folks. MacMullan assures that the food cops are not going to be knocking down Aunt Tillie's door and sampling her holiday cookies: The no-booze law applies only to foods that are sold, she said.
On a tour of the kitchen at the Velvet Cloak Inn on Hillsborough Street, where Savage now lives and where he's concocted his confections for the past few weeks, he pointed out unopened or half-filled bottles of liquors that he used. "I'll probably never use those again," he said.
The law is frustrating, he said, because he considers the alcohols "in terms of spices, not in terms of getting drunk. Alcohol acts on nutmeg, it acts on cinnamon, it acts on all other spices. That's why I hate having to let it go. In my hands, it's not an intoxicant. I don't care about their mind-altering properties. I care about the taste. There are people who don't drink at all, but they just love the chocolate."
Just another hurdle
A setback, having to shelve his best-sellers? Sure, but the hurdles that led Savage to the kitchen in the first place ensure that the setback inflicted by the state's 70-year-old law won't stop him.
Savage was a philosophy professor at N.C. State eight years ago when his girlfriend up and moved to Seattle with the couple's month-old daughter. After they left, he said, "I looked at my first paycheck and said 'I can't do this.' I can't afford to fly out there to see my daughter on a professor's paycheck."
Savage, who retired as a professor three months after starting his candy business, said becoming a candy man was purely a pragmatic decision.
"I needed money to fly to Seattle to see my daughter. The only thing I knew about chocolate was that I liked eating it, but I never doubted for a minute that I could create this niche and sell chocolate, even though I'd never made it before. I didn't cook; I did nothing in the kitchen" before starting the chocolate company. "I used my daughter's measuring spoon."
The business grows
He built his clientele by word of mouth, selling to friends who'd tell others. "I'd take it around wrapped in gold foil in brown paper bags," he said. "I would drive to Cary to sell a $12 order."
Despite his subdued, philosophical demeanor, the white-haired ex-prof bogarted his way into the competitive retail gourmet chocolate business. He still makes custom orders for friends and other individuals, but he also sells his chocolates to bars, restaurants and A Southern Season, the nationally lauded gourmet and housewares store in Chapel Hill. It was his first retail customer, said Caroline Nichols, its candy manager.
"He's done really well," Nichols said. His chocolates are in the section of the store "where people are expecting high-end, interesting stuff. He gets a lot of repeat business. ... He's good with flavor combinations, and he's curious." His candy, she said, "is distinctive, and people do seek it out."
Nichols cites Savage's willingness to experiment as his greatest asset.
Me? I'd say his greatest asset is his love for his daughter, Azure Elise. He named the company after her - Azurelise, or "blue Alice" - and flies out to see her about once a month. Next time he's in the Pacific Northwest, he said, he may look into expanding his chocolate-making business to Seattle - where there is no ban against booze as flavoring.
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