A last-minute amendment saved distilleries’ cocktails

After the state went after distilleries for serving cocktails in their tasting rooms, distilleries responded with calls to update the law.

There’s a lot that happens in the final days and hours of a legislative session. Some sure-fire bills die, plenty of others cross the finish line just before the deadline and some sneak through, hidden in other bills.

Pretty much all of that happened in the span of about 36 hours with a legislative fix that will allow distilleries serve cocktails in their tasting rooms as they’ve been doing since a 2014 law allowed them to open tasting rooms. The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office decided late last year cocktails aren’t actually allowed under the law, requiring intervention from the Legislature.

Originally the standalone bill to fix the issue was held back in committee, then it was added into a broader rewrite of the state’s alcohol laws, which itself died in the 11th hour  thanks to another amendment targeting distilleries and breweries, before it was finally added into a bill dealing with contractors, which passed.

That’s right, the distillery cocktail issue appeared in three different moving pieces of legislation throughout the session before it finally crossed the finish line.

Most of this revolved around Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, who was skeptical of granting distilleries the clear-cut power to serve cocktails, which bar owners and the CHARR industry group felt was crowding out bars. The fact that he owned a bar across the road from a popular Fairbanks distillery didn’t help.

As the vice-chair of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, he prevented the standalone fix from advancing early in the session. It would be taken up in the broader alcohol rewrite, he said, and it was, but not without stricter limits on what distilleries and breweries can serve in a day. With just two days left in session by that point (the House didn’t get it until there were just two weeks left in the session) the plug was pulled on the bill.

The whole process rained down contempt on Wool, including broadly circulated social media posts attacking him and calling his involvement a conflict of interest.

But on the final day of the session, it was Wool who offered a floor amendment to allow distilleries to serve cocktails with non-alcoholic mixers in their tasting rooms.

Wool said despite his feelings about distilleries, he said he had promised it would be taken up one way or another and wanted to deliver on that.

“I knew we were going to see Title IV (the broad rewrite of alcohol laws in Senate Bill 76) this year and we had a bill in our committee. I told people that we’re going to put this into Title IV instead of treating it like a separate bill. I’ve had plenty of meetings where I said, ‘Look, don’t worry we’re going to put it in Title IV and title 4 has to pass,'” he told the Midnight Sun. “And when it looked like Title IV wasn’t going to pass, I decided I’ll put the cocktail language in another bill.”

The last-minute amendment tacked on components of Wool’s House Bill 301, which resolves some new issues surrounding roadhouses, and another legislative fix dealing with whether or not every executive of a corporation that holds a liquor license needs to go through the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office’s background checks.

Because all of it dealt with licensing it fit into Sen. Mia Costello’s Senate Bill 45, which ultimately passed the House 39-1 and the Senate 19-0.

Sausage-making

The messy, twisting process of getting this fix through the Legislature is particularly illustrative of the strange things that happen in the final days of the legislative session, when legislators get creative and strategic about how they get things to the finish line.

The biggest victim of the entire process, too, is the death of Senate Bill 76, a long-in-the-works update to the state’s alcohol laws. Distilleries and many others had hoped to keep the divisive issue out of Senate Bill 76 because it’d make the carefully negotiated bill a battleground for the ongoing fight between the new distillery and brewery businesses and the established bar and restaurant business.

 

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