Dan Squadron: Crusader for 4-Dollar Tonic Water

The beard, being a half-mask, should be forbidden by the police. 

-Arthur Schopenhauer

State Senator Daniel Squadron, now running for Public Advocate, has doggedly advocated on behalf of a little-known cause in each of his three terms.  Though his advocacy has not gotten anywhere yet, he persists, having three times introduced this vital legislation: to permit liquor stores ”to carry and sell tonic water, bitters and maraschino cherries.”

Sen. Squadron’s grand legislative vision does not stop there, however.  His bill, sponsored on the Assembly side by Brian Kavanagh, will also “allow liquor wholesalers to carry these products on their trucks.” 

Who has been clamoring for tonic water on the shelves of liquor stores?  Not the owners of liquor stores.  The New York State Liquor Store Association, a trade group, explains its reasons for “actively opposing” Squadron’s bill:

…most retail stores are owned and operated by small, independent business owners with limited space available; liquor stores do not have the infrastructure or the desire to sell these types of items; and in this case, liquor stores would have to manage the bottle deposit on tonic water containers, which would add cost and complexity to conducting business.

“Managing the bottle deposit” on bottles of tonic water seems relatively straightforward, and every deli, bodega and supermarket is able to do it.  Moreover, it isn’t like the law would force a liquor store owner to stock tonic water and maraschino cherries.  In reality the NYSLSA is terrified that the Legislature will one day allow grocery stores to sell wine, and reflexively opposes any blurring of the line between liquor and food.

Dan Squadron has been talking up this law since he got into office.  At a meeting of the Montague Street BID in 2009 he announced, “a new law is going into effect that will allow liquor stores to sell some non-alcoholic goods, such as tonic water and maraschino cherries,” in order to lift burdensome restrictions on small businesses.

Readers of this site will not be surprised to learn that an old classmate and donor to Daniel Squadron’s campaign is, of all things, a Brooklyn-based producer of an artisanal, boutique and extremely expensive (for tonic water) tonic water.  Jordan Silbert, Fieldston graduate (like Squadron), explains at great length, in innumerable interviews, his Eureka! moment when he discovered that tonic water is soda.

Jordan Silbert, who in his life has made one political contribution (to Daniel Squadron), perfected an agave-based tonic water called Q Tonic, popular in upscale bars and restaurants.  The bespoke soda manufacturer has called for passage of Squadron’s law, saying, "In other states…tonic water can be sold in liquor stores where people buy their gin or vodka. But in New York, we are limited to a very narrow category of places to sell our product.”

The first part of Squadron’s bill appears to be basic cronyism to help out an old boy from prep school: remember, this is the guy whose dad introduced Bernard Madoff to the Wilpons, and gave Rupert Murdoch entree to the New York media scene.  So he knows the value of doing favors.  The other part of the law, however, addressing the plight of liquor wholesalers, may be tailored to help a major Red Hook beer and liquor distributor, Phoenix Beverages, whose executives have contributed more than $19,000 to his campaign.

Phoenix, which took over Piers 7 and 11 on the Brooklyn docks in 2010, is among the largest beer and liquor distributors in New York, and has the Heineken franchise.  The company unloads 20,000 containers a year, and caused consternation in the neighborhood when its trucks began clogging up Columbia Street. 

Phoenix Beverages currently does not distribute tonic water.  Daniel Squadron’s bill appears to carve out a very particular exemption regarding specifically the transportation of tonic water, bitters and maraschino cherries by liquor wholesalers; presumably some law currently prohibits their transport.  Or perhaps it is one of those cases where permissions not specifically enumerated are not assigned.  I don’t know…I don’t even know what bitters are.

It does appear, however, that Daniel Squadron has invested a lot of energy and time into pushing a bill that scarcely can be said to serve the public interest at large.  The owners of liquor stores don’t want it.  Nobody goes to a liquor store to get cherries.  Jordan Silbert would like to stock his 4-dollar mini bottles of tonic water at upscale liquor stores with extra shelf space.  Maybe Phoenix Beverages would like to use its existing channels to push more products.  Also, there is a factory that produces maraschino cherries in Red Hook: maybe Senator Squadron is trying to expand their market share.

In any case the tonic water bill that Dan Squadron has been relentlessly resubmitting seems to add some texture and shading to the man’s claims to being utterly pure.  Yes indeed, he hasn’t taken money from corporations, just from the owners of corporations.  But stories like what I have described above demonstrate to us how men like Squadron, insiders operating at the highest levels of wealth and power, use the system to the ends of their friends and associates.