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Senate bill offers hope for state's craft spirits industry


Craft distillers are hoping a bill that’s cleared the state Senate could give them a push to parity with local brew pubs and wineries. George Olsen has more.

Right now life as a craft distiller in the state is rather rough. You can only do appreciable sales of your product through the state Alcohol Beverage Control system. Someone comes to your facility and takes a tour, they may then purchase a bottle… singular… and if they come back in 364 days for another, no sale. One bottle per person per year. They also can’t go out in the community and promote their product… craft beer festival, fine. Craft spirits festival, nope. That’s why there’s some excitement in the craft spirits industry about SB155 which passed the state Senate last week.

“The way the environment is this is a huge step for them. I think they understand that its slow going but we are making progress. It’s that old adage give me an inch they’ll take a mile. They’ll be happy with their inch as they go along the way.”

John Francis Trump, the managing editor of the Carolina Journal and author of the recently released “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State” which profiles craft spirits producers throughout North Carolina. SB155 would ease the reins on the craft spirits industry a bit. Trump’s estimation is that raising the limit of bottle sales on site from one a year to five will have the biggest impact.

“Many of the distilleries sell several products and you’ve got to pick one during a calendar year to buy it on a year to year basis. People use creative means of getting friends or family to get a couple bottles but now you can pretty much buy one bottle of every product. Most distillers, I don’t think there are many that have 4 or 5, so that gives people the option of buying each one, then coming back again and revisiting because if you buy your bottle there’s not a lot of impetus to come back but if you buy a bottle here and a bottle there there’s more reason to come back to take tours, to do tastings and to bring friends.”

SB155 would also allow craft distillers to leave their facility from time to time, so to speak. For example, Covington Spirits in Snow Hill makes vodka from yams. Snow Hill has a Sweet Potato Festival. Right now, Covington Spirits can’t set up a booth and offer tastings at the Sweet Potato Festival. Under SB155, they could. 

“You go out to a festival, you go to Salute in Winston or a craft beer festival, it seems every weekend you can taste beer from different places but you can’t do that with liquor. This would allow them to get out in the community and get people tasting them. What this does, and I think the goal of the bill is and the sponsors have said put them on par with the wineries and breweries, to give them just as much of a chance to sell their product and get their product out there and known to consumers as breweries might or wineries might.”

All of this comes with an important proviso … anything regarding alcohol must have local approval, so the bill could pass and the local government where your favorite craft distiller is located doesn’t approve, no tastings at your local festival. Local approval is also necessary for the part of the bill that’s received the most media attention so far, causing it to be dubbed “the brunch bill.” SB155 would move alcohol sales on Sunday up from starting at noon to starting at 10:00 am. Before the bill’s passage it was amended to not only allow alcohol sales earlier on Sunday at restaurants but also sales at grocery and convenience stores. That aspect has gotten the attention of social conservatives in the state who object to the earlier alcohol sales on Sunday. Trump says that’s part of a long time confrontation in the state often referred to as “Baptists versus Bootleggers.”

“What happens in the House remains to be seen but I imagine the same arguments will rear themselves and they may be a little more bold this time.”

SB155 is now under consideration in the state House where Trump believes there’s “a pretty good path” for passage. John Francis Trump is the managing editor of the Carolina Journal and author of “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State.” I’m George Olsen.

George Olsen is a 1977 Havelock High School graduate. He received his B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he got his first taste of non-commercial radio working for their student station WUSC. After graduation he worked about five years in commercial radio before coming to work at Public Radio East where he has remained since outside of a nearly 3-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the early 1990s. On his return to eastern North Carolina he hosted classical music for Public Radio East before moving into the Morning Edition host position and now can be heard on All Things Considered. He also hosts and produces The Sound, five hours of Americana, Roots Rock and Contemporary Folk weekday evenings on PRE Public Radio East News & Ideas, and is a news and feature producer for Public Radio East.
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