Far from the nearest town, Mac’s General Merchandise has sold steaks, sausages and a few aisles of groceries for more than 50 years. Its shelves have stocked many products under many brand names, but always absent from its coolers were the likes of Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
Closest to Benson but outside any town limits, Mac’s and country stores like it can’t sell beer and wine because Johnston remains a dry county despite allowing liquor by the drink two decades ago.
That could change in November as Johnston commissioners mull a referendum that would ask voters to say yes or no to alcohol sales countywide.
In 1997, Johnston voters said yes to liquor by the drink but no to off-premise beer sales. Voters rejected beer again in 2002. Because of the vote, county restaurants can sell a pint of beer and an Old Fashioned, but convenience stores in rural Johnston can’t sell a six-pack.
It’s even more confusing than that. Towns and communities can hold their own referendums after a county vote, and many have done so, with off-premise beer sales now available in the unincorporated Cleveland community, for example.
Jason Ashworth, who owns Mac’s, said that without off-premise alcohol sales, country stores around Johnston could dry up. He said big box and chain grocery stores have become a magnet for folks who used to frequent country stores.
“What we’ve found in the past 10 to 15 years, our customer base has been taken over by the one-stop-shop,” Ashworth told the Johnston County Board of Commissioners at its March meeting. “When someone is having a cookout and they drive into town to get their beer and have the option to do the rest of their shopping, naturally we’re going to lose that sale.”
Ashworth sees a new generation of customers with a different relationship with alcohol than earlier ones. But even then, Ashworth said, he doesn’t know how the beer vote failed in 1997 and 2002 or why commissioners haven’t returned it to the ballot in more than a decade.
“That was crazy, I’ll tell you,” Ashworth said. “If people want to drink beer, they’re going to drink beer. I myself don’t drink, but they might want to. You have to cater to your customers’ needs if you want to be in business.
“The biggest thing people don’t really understand is when people need something, they come to us,” Ashworth said of country grocers. “When you start losing these, it’s going to hurt your communities.”
Alcohol sales are so critical, Ashworth said, he considered adding a 36-seat restaurant to his store so he could sell six-packs to take home. North Carolina ABC laws allow off-premises beer sales from restaurants and private clubs that hold liquor-by-the-drink permits.
But it was not to be. County setback rules required Ashworth to buy a few feet of land to gain clearance, and he and his neighbor couldn’t make a deal.
“We hear it all the time, ‘When are you going to sell beer?’ ” Ashworth said. “I think the need is here, and it’s taken too long to get it back on the ballot. The generation now will pass it.”
Commissioners seemed to agree. The board deferred major discussion on an alcohol referendum to its April meeting, but Commissioner Allen Mims said he was more than willing to put it back on a November ballot. Archer Lodge decided this month that it will put alcohol sales to a vote this fall, and a committee in Clayton just held its first planning meeting on a referendum there. In Clayton, the beer store in Clayton Corners shopping center had to obtain a costly special permit to sell beer by the glass, and the wine shop on Main Street can sell wine by the glass but not beer.
Commissioners’ Chairman Tony Braswell said Johnston County is a different place than it was in 1997. “We’re a much more diverse county now,” he said.
That diversity might be most apparent in the county’s businesses. Since the last referendum, and really in just the last few years, Johnston has added a distillery, two breweries and several beer specialty stores.
Jeremey Norris opened Broadslab Distillery outside of Benson three years ago; his distilling license was the fifth approved in the state. From the porch of his tasting room, he points out the out-of-state license plates and says North Carolina is taking advantage of something Kentucky and California have long known – there’s tourism in alcohol.
“Wine is big tourism business in California, and there’s the bourbon trail in Kentucky,” Norris said. “What’s been happening across the county is now happening down here.”
Norris said he has seen generational and cultural shifts in the way Johnston County thinks about liquor and beer. He has seen a geographical change, too.
“A lot of it is generational and cultural, but a lot of people in this area were not in Johnston County or North Carolina 10 years ago,” Norris said. “I think a referendum will pass today.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson
A ‘dry’ county
Johnston County, like North Carolina, has a complicated history with alcohol.
A majority of Johnston voters were opposed when North Carolina passed a referendum to prohibit the sale of alcohol statewide in 1908, a decade before national prohibition. That opposition, and the county’s thriving moonshine trade, earned it the nickname “Banner Whiskey County.”
North Carolina never ratified the amendment ending national prohibition in 1933, because those who wanted to keep the state “dry” blocked a constitutional convention. But two years later, “wet” legislators were able to pass a bill allowing 18 Eastern North Carolina counties to create local control boards to buy and resell liquor in their own stores.
Two years later, the legislature extended that power to all 100 counties and established the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission to fight the elicit sale of alcohol. By the end of that year, 27 counties had authorized the creation of ABC stores, including Johnston.
But county voters had a change of heart, and three years later voted to get out of the ABC system. Though moonshine production continued in the county, Johnston did not open another ABC store until late 1964, in Smithfield, after county voters again gave their blessing.