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Senate passes bill allowing more sales at distilleries, earlier Sunday ‘brunch’ sales

Scott Maitland of Top of the Hill Distillery in Chapel Hill and president of the N.C. Distillers Association, speaks on behalf of Senate Bill 155 Thursday at the Senate Rules Committee. (CJ photo by Rick Henderson)
Scott Maitland of Top of the Hill Distillery in Chapel Hill and president of the N.C. Distillers Association, speaks on behalf of Senate Bill 155 Thursday at the Senate Rules Committee. (CJ photo by Rick Henderson)

No discussion. No debate. No drama. A lopsided vote.

A couple of hours after slipping through a skeptical Senate Rules Committee, Senate Bill 155, aka the brunch bill, breezed through the full Senate Thursday by a 32-13 vote. Republicans were split, 22-12, and those divisions became apparent, mainly during a Wednesday meeting of the Senate’s Finance Committee and to a lesser extent at the Thursday Rules session.

If the House concurs with the Senate and the bill becomes law, North Carolina distillers will be able to sell five bottles per customer annually to patrons who take a distillery tour. The current annual limit is one bottle.

Distilleries will be able to hold tastings at festivals, trade shows, and conventions that allow alcohol tastings.

Restaurants and retail outlets also will be able to serve and sell alcohol beginning at 10 a.m. Sundays rather than at noon with the approval of local governing bodies. This will put North Carolina even with 47 other states that allow alcohol to be served Sundays before noon, noted Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, the bill’s chief sponsor.

The five-bottle provision would take effect July 1, if the bill becomes law by then.

Taylor Howard, co-owner of H & H Distillery in Asheville, says the five-bottle law will help distilleries the most of any part of the bill. It would bring more people in more often, making the distillery more like a brewpub. 

“It’s not that we’re not trying to not support ABC stores, but being able to push our products out of the distillery would be a huge aspect for growth.”

The major objection among Rules members came from Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. He scoffed at a provision in the bill charging a $750 per-event fee to auctioneers marketing beer, wines, and spirits — primarily aimed at auctions of high-dollar vintage merchandise or from estates. The events happen rarely. Legislative staff estimated the provision would raise a mere $3,000 a year, but said business might improve if they could include vintage spirits and other rare alcoholic beverages.

The Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League implored the committee to reject the bill on religious grounds, giving a speech much like the one he delivered at the Finance meeting. Scott Maitland, proprietor of Top of the Hill Distillers in Chapel Hill, owner of the popular Top of the Hill Restaurant, and president of the N.C. Distillers Association, told the committee the law would make a huge impact on distilleries. The five-bottle rule would make a big difference at his business and allowing alcohol sales before noon on Sundays would boost his restaurant’s business (and its ability to employ people) dramatically.

The committee approved the bill by voice vote in what appeared to be a narrow margin. But when the bill reached the Senate floor, it passed quickly without any discussion or debate.