Opinion: CJ Opinion

Hearing over liquor shortage reveals the obvious: N.C. ABC system is a mess

Lawmakers held a hearing recently focused on the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control system. Their goal was to learn why ABC store shelves are empty and why bars and restaurants are scratching and scraping for typically ubiquitous brands such as Jameson’s and Titos.

The ABC blames problems with the global supply chain, but that’s only part of it. The warehouse operator, LB&B Associates, blames new software that customers can’t or won’t figure out. That’s another part.

The fundamental issue, which I’ve written over and over again, is an 80-plus-year-old system whose sole purpose is funding coffers of the 170 or so towns and municipalities lucky enough to have an ABC board. The General Assembly last year wisely enacted legislation capping the number of boards, which, as one can imagine, would continue proliferating, like so much highway kudzu.

Proponents of the system talk a lot about “control,” which, of course, represents the third word in the acronym. Indeed, the system controls many things — price, selection, quantity, access, availability, job growth, innovation, entrepreneurship.

It does little, however, to control consumption, although a certain pastor and one lawmaker just won’t let it go. People who live close to our southern border find a free, open, and plentiful market in South Carolina. Further, a plethora of North Carolinians choose not to drink for religious reasons, and a prominent church that preaches abstinence dominates the state.

ABC stores stayed open last year while the governor closed the bars, clubs, and restaurants so dependent on profits from selling liquor. Many of these businesses eventually closed for good, as all the while ABC racked up record profits. North Carolinians, forced at the point of the proverbial gun to stay home and absorb the constant fear-mongering turned to the bottle, or the can, or the cardboard box. Confused, scared, and depressed. 

People will find liquor, regardless of whether North Carolina’s monopoly wants to sell it to them. N.C. celebrates its breweries and winemakers, and rightly so. But why not our state’s distillers, who, in all reality serve the same product — ethanol, albeit in myriad forms. A shot of beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of spirits: All the same.

For the system to change, lawmakers have to change it. People such as Chuck McGrady, Rick Gunn, Tim Moffitt, and Jamie Boles have done well in moving legislation to reform the system, and the respective governors have concurred.

But opposition to taking the system private remains strong.

Distillers around the state on Oct. 4 celebrated House Bill 890, which Cooper signed into law, by selling their products on Sunday, apart from the state-run system. The bill takes other steps to level the playing field for distillers, making rules more consistent with those governing breweries and wineries. The law expands the size of growlers, loosens rules for tours in N.C. distilleries, and allows distillers to sell their products at festivals.

It also allows people to order online and pick products up from state ABC stores, although liquor still can’t legally be shipped individually to North Carolinians. Baby steps for sure, but still light years away from a free and open market.

Lawmakers, to their credit, will continue to investigate the supply and distribution problem, which — as already proven — will be quite the task. The recent hearing lasted for more than two hours and, as Moffitt said, raised more questions than provided answers. The system is a mess, and that’s based in fact: An audit that showed millions in wasted money, the resignation of the ABC commission chair, software problems, and distribution issues.

One proud prohibitionist, in addressing the problems, found time for a moment of levity, saying, “I beg you that we please get it right.”

A real knee-slapper, that is.

John Trump is managing editor of Carolina Journal and author of “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State.”