News: CJ Exclusives

House passes ABC reforms, bill heads to Senate for concurrence

George Smith, behind the tasting bar at his Copper Barrel Distillery in North Wilkesboro. (Photo by Lisa Snedeker)
George Smith, behind the tasting bar at his Copper Barrel Distillery in North Wilkesboro. (Photo by Lisa Snedeker)

The N.C. House on Thursday, July 11, after years of contentious debate and myriad failed efforts, were finally able to pass a bill, in an 86-28 vote, that would align craft distilleries more closely with rules governing wine and craft beer.

The bill, Senate Bill 290, has already passed the Senate, 39-4, and returns to that body for concurrence, and presumably, to Gov. Roy Cooper for his signature.

S.B. 290, which has undergone many revisions, passed on the House floor Wednesday, 91-21, but an objection on third reading forced it to Thursday’s calendar for final vote.

Earlier Wednesday, a new version of S.B. 290 passed the House Rules Committee. Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, announced in the meeting the bill had been combined with House Bill 536, which cleared the N.C. House, 91-24, on Tuesday.

H.B. 536, sponsored by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, now incorporated into S.B. 290, will allow brewers to offer tastings at farmers markets and removes a limitation on sales at the state’s craft distilleries. The bill allows restaurants and other venues to sell up to two drinks per customer at any one time, and would allow liquor tastings at state ABC stores, from 1 to 7 p.m., for three hours, with no more than three tastings per week.

S.B. 290 would allow N.C. distilleries to sell malt beverages and unfortified and fortified wine, as well mixed beverages. The bill would allow distillers to, much like ABC stores, sell to consumers without facing the current five-bottle-per-person annual restriction.

Although legislation moving the state toward privatization of liquor sales has proved unsuccessful, H.B. 536 restricts the formation of new ABC boards, of which the state has about 170. 

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, the primary sponsor of H.B. 536, said it’s easier to explain the bill by listing things no longer in it, such as direct online sales, Sunday sales, and the sale of alcohol on trains and ferries.

Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, has proposed one amendment after another to prevent alcohol reform — a couple of times on issues already decided in committee or through a previous failed amendment.

Hurley, citing the need for local control, has consistently objected to the idea of ending proliferation of the boards and stopped an earlier move that would have forced counties with multiple boards to merge the boards. Thursday, she offered two more amendments, again trying to remove language to stop new ABC boards from forming. She also wanted to remove a provision allowing alcohol sales at bingo games. Both amendments failed.

N.C. craft distillers are already making plans to take advantage of the new rules.

“We are so pleased that we will be able to sample consumers in N.C. ABC stores,” said Leanne Powell of Southern Grace Distilleries in Mt. Pleasant.

“Most consumers know what Jack Daniel’s and Absolut taste like, but they often feel like they are taking a chance when they purchase a N.C. spirit that hasn’t had the same exposure. We know from our sampling in South Carolina stores that it can be done responsibly, and that when folks try our spirits, they purchase them. This is huge for our small business.”

Kathleen Smith of Copper Barrel Distillery in North Wilkesboro said her distillery has started preparing to serve craft cocktails.

“The opportunity to bring our spirits to the community and beyond through cocktails will be a ‘game changer,’ she said. “It provides a platform to introduce moonshine as an elevated spirit that rivals the best whiskies and is delicious enjoyed in craft cocktails, dispelling the myths that encourage over-indulgence.”

Leah Pressley Howard of Cultivated Cocktails in Asheville said she’ll begin work on scheduling tastings around the state and will use the new law as a means to teach people about the art of mixology.

“From grain to garnish at Cultivated Cocktails,” she says.