Award-winning craft distillers in North Carolina are making a plethora of products. Rum with pecans and honey, for example, and organic wheat whiskey, and strawberry moonshine.
The distillers come from diverse backgrounds and apply myriad methods and processes.
Yet a common theme runs throughout the state, regardless of a distillery’s physical size or financial portfolio.
What most, if not all, N.C. distillers want is parity. Not a move to complete privatization, necessarily, but a level playing field, so to speak.
Distillers want to offer customers mixed drinks, to pay taxes more comparable to those levied on brewers and vintners, to sell their products directly to consumers online. Many want their products displayed alongside the “big” brands, as opposed to relegation in an “N.C.” section. They want to allow customers to taste their products in the store — before they shell out $30 or more.
They want to sell their products on Sunday.
Some, such as Scott Smith of Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo, say they appreciate the state’s system of distribution and its central warehouses.
“We don’t own an 18-wheeler,” he said. “When it comes to distribution, it makes it a little easier for us. It’s not perfect, but it works.”
Smith isn’t alone. The system isn’t perfect, other distillers will admit, but they’re starting to understand it and to work within its confines.
Taxes are another matter.
For beer, North Carolina levies an excise tax amounting to 62 cents per gallon, according to the Tax Foundation. For spirits, it’s $14.63 per gallons; $1 for wine.
Why the disparity? After all, a 1.5-ounce glass of liquor equals a five-ounce glass of wine equals 12 ounces of beer.
“I fully support the ABC’s desire to ensure people drink responsibly,” says George Smith, president and CEO of Copper Barrel Distillery in Wilkesboro.
“However, it is irresponsible of the state to regulate beer, wine, and spirits differently. The state’s current laws prohibit distilleries from reaching their full economic potential.”
It’s hypocritical, the distillers often say, for the state to allow wineries and breweries to sell customers as much beer and wine as they want but to limit distilleries to tastings amounting to 1.5 ounces of alcohol. People who buy a bottle or two from a distiller must show an ID, and their purchase is catalogued.
“Furthermore,” George Smith says, “distilleries should also be allowed to serve mixed drinks, as opposed to being forced to serve their spirits unadulterated. While the general public enjoys consuming beer and wine straight from the bottle or can, a majority of people prefer to dilute or mix their spirits into cocktails prior to consumption. Allowing distilleries to serve cocktails in their tasting rooms will also provide distilleries with additional justification to employ more people.”
Count Zeb Williams among those pushing hard for parity but not total privatization, because, Williams said, that would hurt smaller distilleries.
“We don’t have the wallets … to pay for shelf space,” said Williams of the Old Nick Williams Farm and Distillery in Lewisville.
Williams takes issue with the heavy policing around spirits. There’s the Alcoholic Beverage Control commission, Alcohol Law Enforcement, the individual boards, and additional enforcement officers who work for those boards. Sixteen local ABC boards employ a total of more than 50 law enforcement officers, the ABC website says.
The ABC, Williams says, should be “pro-business,” and not “pro-policing.”
“The whole idea that you look at liquor differently … it’s asinine, it’s absurd, and, quite frankly, it’s a pre-1900 way of thinking.”
“Let us run our businesses, and let us run it properly,” he says.