Opinion: Daily Journal

People want to buy liquor, so N.C. should make it as easy as possible

Virginia, also — like North Carolina — an alcohol control state, is allowing distillers to deliver to people’s homes.

It’s a big step, and it would be great if North Carolina found a way to implement a similar service, for myriad reasons, which I’ll get to.

The state deems N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control stores essential businesses. I certainly wouldn’t disagree.

But distillers have told me, and I have seen, customers crowd around the rum and vodka aisles, as they check out, and at the doors. Store workers are doing their best to promote social distancing but, as the old saw goes, people are people. 

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, has led the passage of several bills easing the state’s draconian restrictions on alcohol sales. 

In his learned opinion, he told Carolina Journal, little can be done to further loosen liquor statutes without legislative action. Neither N.C. ABC nor the governor — unless lawmakers decide otherwise — can issue such edicts with changing Chapter 18B.

McGrady said the General Assembly, when it returns later this month, may look at a range of things to, conceivably, ease things for residents, including those who make, sell, and buy liquor.

“Could this be on the list of things we could give the governor authority to do … ,” McGrady said, in the form of a question. “Well, yeah,” he answered.

ABC stores are doing great business, he said. They’re open, McGrady said, and people are using them.

In Mecklenburg County, the Charlotte Ledger reported, ABC stores in March saw a 29% increase in sales compared to a year ago, the head of the county’s ABC board told the publication. 

Alcohol sales, in fact, are increasing across a shaken country.

“CEO Jason Hughes said people started stockpiling liquor early in the month, on fears that ABC stores might close because of the coronavirus pandemic,” the Ledger wrote Wednesday.

All one needs as evidence of the growing problem, one distiller told me, is a photo of a line at an ABC store.

In Virginia, the Virginian-Pilot wrote, distilleries’ ability to deliver liquor is a permanent change, as opposed to a temporary privilege.

“We were able to write that change into the contract that distillery stores have with the ABC,” ABC spokeswoman Taylor Thornberg told the newspaper.

“Virginia distilleries,” the story goes on, “will have slightly more stringent restrictions on how liquor can be delivered: Unlike breweries and wineries, which can use third-party vendors such as delivery apps, distilleries must deliver the liquor themselves.” 

Certainly, N.C. lawmakers should look at allowing liquor delivery. They also should consider selling cocktails to go — in sealed containers — as well as direct online sales from distilleries to customers. 

Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017 signed Senate Bill 155, which — at time — cleared the way for N.C. craft distillers to sell five bottles to customers each year, instead of just one. Senate Bill 290, of last year, allows distillers to sell an unlimited amount of liquor from their distilleries. But those distilleries, sans curbside sales, are closed because of the pandemic.

Things have changed forever. Foresight, innovation, and creativity, are as important now to our continued way of life as they’ve ever been. Enough with the nostalgia.

 

An amendment to a recent bill toward reforming N.C. liquor laws removed a provision allowing distilleries to sell directly to consumers, meaning distillers must contract with online merchants in other states to sell their products. So, the state loses thousands in excise taxes, and consumers are left wanting.

Even the proverbial playing field. Now or never.

“Alcohol is alcohol,” one distiller told me Thursday. “You’ve got to treat it all the same.” 

Wednesday, N.C. Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, and the N.C. Association of ABC Boards announced they’re pushing an idea to allow bars and restaurants to sell alcohol back to N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission stores. 

That may work, depending on the reaction from local boards. But a better idea, as one distiller points out, is allowing restaurants, clubs, and distilleries to sell sealed to-go drinks, which would certainly prove more profitable, could put at least a few more people back to work, and would, well, cater to consumers.

What a concept.

Regardless of the pandemic, McGrady, who is retiring this year, told CJ, he’s in favor of giving people other ways to buy spirits. 

People want the product, he says. Yet, as it stands — more poignantly in these terrible times — they have just one place to get it.

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