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House Bill 460 about more than brunches, lawmakers told

Allowing distilleries to provide tastings and sell up to five bottles to visitors per year would let local vendors show their wares

The view from above at Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo.
The view from above at Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo.

Rep. John Bradford began discussion of House Bill 460 on Tuesday by saying the measure was probably long overdue.

It’s a move that’s been delayed, by some accounts, for as many as 80 years.

Bradford, a Mecklenburg County Republican and deputy majority whip, outlined the bill during a meeting of the Alcoholic Beverage Control standing committee. He was the first in a string of speakers, including ABC officials from around the state, restaurateurs, and merchants, as well as representatives from the liquor industry, including the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. DISCUS is based in Washington, D.C., and lobbies against things such as high taxes on liquor, growth-inhibiting laws, and obstructionist trading practices.

Bradford talked about provisions allowing distilleries to sell five bottles per customer per year, about the chance for distillers to offer tastings outside their distilleries, and about giving restaurants the option of selling alcohol starting at 10 a.m. on Sunday, as opposed to noon.

Sunday brunch, said Umstead Hotel and Spa General Manager Jim Beley, has become a big part of the travel experience, and North Carolina hosts some 55 million people each year. H.B. 460, as well as its Senate companion, S.B. 155, would — with local government approval — allow restaurants to sell alcohol two hours earlier. Many proponents are pushing for a legislative provision allowing grocers, wineries, and breweries to sell before their spirits before noon, as well.

“We see this bill as a win for both the public and private sectors,” Beley told a crowd packed tight in a room in the Legislative Building.

Tastings, said Asheville ABC Board General Manager Mark Combs, are key to selling and promoting North Carolina spirits. Combs says his staff is well-trained and helpful, and workers do their best to impart their knowledge on customers.

But that only goes so far, he says, particularly when the goal is to sell better alcohol, which in most cases means local alcohol.

“There’s nothing like tasting it,” he says.

As outlined in the bills, the tastings provision gives the distillers the chance to apply for a permit — which would cost $200 for special events — and serve 1.5 ounces each to people visiting ABC stories or attending festivals or trade shows, for example.

Maybe the biggest help to distillers is allowing each person who visits a distillery to buy five bottles of a distillery’s product per year. Now, people can buy one bottle per distillery every 12 months.

Allowing distillers to sell five bottles to one customer clearly would bring in more revenue and perpetuate growth.

“That would double or triple revenue,” George Smith, who founded and runs Copper Barrel Distillery in North Wilkesboro, told Carolina Journal. “As a startup, that’s a huge deal. That will probably have the biggest impact for us.”

In opposing the spirits bill, the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League referenced the one-bottle rule, which Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law in 2015.

“When will this end?”

He also talked about the potential to exacerbate the problem of underage drinking, and about the brunch provision conflicting with Sunday worship services.

“Is it too much to ask the state to show deference?”

Nationwide Prohibition ended with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933, but North Carolina didn’t ratify the amendment. Finally, in 1937, the Alcoholic Beverage Control system was set up to sell alcohol in North Carolina counties. The state allowed breweries and wineries to operate shortly after Prohibition, but North Carolina lawmakers didn’t lift the ban on making liquor until 1979.

North Carolina now has more than 40 operating distilleries, though the first didn’t come online until 2005.

The bill remains in the ABC committee, and House lawmakers will take it up again when they return after the Easter break next week.