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NC distilleries seek more freedom to serve

Go inside Durham Distillery, makers of Conniption Gin

Durham Distillery's Conniption gin hit the shelves on Durham and Wake county ABC stores in 2015. Go inside the company's craft distillery.
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Durham Distillery's Conniption gin hit the shelves on Durham and Wake county ABC stores in 2015. Go inside the company's craft distillery.

Visiting a craft brewery and visiting a craft distillery in North Carolina are vastly different experiences, but that could change this year.

Craft breweries have become community gathering places where you can hang out for hours while sampling unique local beers. The clientele usually avoids drunken misbehavior, so it’s even become popular to bring the kids and let them frolic on the lawn outside.

Because they’re producing liquor, craft distilleries face much more stringent regulations. They can only offer quarter-ounce samples of straight liquor to people who take a tour. That means there’s little reason to hang out at the facility, and if you’d prefer to sample their products in a cocktail, you’re out of luck. You’ll have to buy a bottle and make one yourself at home — and you can only buy up to five bottles per year at the distillery.

State legislators are working to change that. Senate Bill 290, which is moving in the Senate this month, would let distillers play by similar rules as their beer and wine counterparts. They’d be able to serve cocktails to their visitors and sell a larger number of bottles on-site. The bill also removes some hurdles in the ABC system that can make it difficult for distillers to get their beverages in bars and restaurants.

The legislation is a game-changer for the craft distillery business, and more will open and create jobs if it becomes law. Already, North Carolina has gone from having 27 distilleries in 2015 to nearly 80 in 2019, resulting in part from previous law changes. But it’s still well below North Carolina’s 300 breweries and brewpubs.

The industry’s benefits go well beyond their employees and fans of unique liquor beverages. Like breweries and wineries, many distilleries are located in small, rural communities where they can serve as a magnet for visitors.

For example, the tiny Burke County town of Rutherford College is hardly a tourism mecca, but it’s likely that people who come to learn about rum, whiskey and moonshine at South Mountain Distilling Co. will eat at the barbecue joint down the street. And in the Cabarrus County town of Mount Pleasant, Southern Grace Distilleries has repurposed an old state prison as the “Whiskey Prison.”

Less obvious is the distilleries’ positive impact on North Carolina agriculture. Pete Barger of Southern Distilling Company in Statesville told lawmakers that he uses thousands of pounds of grain from local farms in each shift producing whiskey. The spent grain from the process then goes back to the farm to feed cattle. Barger estimates his business indirectly supports the employment of three times the number of people who actually work in the distillery.

Predictably, the distillery bill is getting pushback from conservative religious groups like the Christian Action League. They’re worried that by allowing more liquor sales at distilleries, state leaders are taking a step toward privatizing the ABC system, allowing the devil’s drink to be sold without going through a government-run agency.

Some of the same lawmakers who sponsored the distillery bill are indeed pursuing privatization, and restaurant and retail lobbying groups have launched a “Free The Spirits” campaign in support. That measure is less likely to pass this year, and the distilleries aren’t looking to fight the ABC stores that currently sell their products.

That’s why the latest version of the distillery bill is a compromise between the liquor producers and the N.C. Association of ABC Stores, which now won’t oppose the legislation. That gives the bill smoother sailing in the legislature, and no one on a Senate committee that recently reviewed voiced any objections.

It’s rare to see legislation that can create an immediate boost for whiskey connoisseurs, farmers and small town economies. For that, we can raise a glass to the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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