Craft distillers fighting for the right to pour

They want to charge for tastings - the way wineries do

Los Angeles TimesApril 9, 2013 

— In a 65,000-square-foot structure that once housed Navy fighter jets, Lance Winters of St. George Spirits makes popular Hangar One vodka, along with gin, bourbon, rum, whiskey, liqueurs and even absinthe.

Unlike vast distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee that make and bottle hard liquor by the millions of barrels, Hangar One is produced by one of a growing breed of small-batch craft distillers. There are already more than 30 of them in California, and – like wineries and microbreweries – they want to charge for tastings and sell bottles for their visitors to take home.

But in recent months, the craft distillers have run up against the powerful liquor lobby, led by wholesalers opposed to changing California state law.

Fighting the powerful liquor distributors to tweak alcoholic beverage laws can be daunting, said Phillip Ung of California Common Cause, a watchdog group. “I can’t think of one example where the distributors haven’t gotten their way on alcohol issues.”

California law differs somewhat from that in the Tar Heel State. In North Carolina, distillers charge for tours and participants can taste their products on site, but customers can buy bottled liquor only at county-run ABC stores.

Opening more California tasting rooms and selling their liquor there are crucial to the fledgling industry, said Melkon Khosrovian, head of Greenbar Collective in Los Angeles’ downtown arts district, where Greenbar makes organic whiskey, tequila, bitters and other spirits in an old garment sewing shop.

“Without these laws, we lose ground each year to more progressive states – like Washington, Colorado and New York – where distilleries can earn much more money from their tasting rooms and on-site sales and spend that money here to gain market share,” he said.

For now, California prohibits artisanal spirits makers from operating their tasting rooms for extended hours as do wineries. Instead they offer occasional scheduled tours at either no cost or for nominal fees.

After a recent Greenbar tasting of Slow Hand White Whiskey, Darby O’Neill, a film studio marketer from Glendale, was enthusiastic. She supports fixing “hiccups” in the law that ban liquor sales at distilleries.

“It would have been neat to take one of the things we tasted home,” she said, “but we couldn’t do that.”

Greenbar and other new-breed spirits makers argue that their emphasis on California-grown ingredients, such as wheat, fruit, rye and sugar cane, puts them on the alcohol-laced leading edge of an eat-local and artisanal food movement first popularized by legendary chef Alice Waters at her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

Distributors warn that these new operations could be the equivalent of opening new liquor stores in unsuspecting neighborhoods, said Manuel Espinoza, California’s former top alcoholic beverage regulator and the executive director of Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of California. Lawmakers should not “whittle down the concept of the three-tiered system” of producers, distributors and retailers, he said.

The distillers’ bill may have gotten off to a rough start by being watered down to deal only with tasting events. But its author, state Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat,, said she’s eager “to start the conversation” with distributors to help the small companies create new jobs and economic activity.

Artisanal distillers are looking to lawmakers to help spur California versions of “Distillery Row” in Portland, Ore. A handful of spirit makers banded together a few years ago to attract tourists and locals to the gentrifying Southeast neighborhood.

“I think there’s a market for that,” said Anne Stericker, a West Los Angeles personal concierge and blogger. “It’s not expensive. It’s something new that’s a little adventurous.”

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