House committee advances distillery cocktail bill

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

The House bill to set the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office straight on cocktails served by distilleries took another step toward today.

House Bill 269 cleared the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, following nearly three hours of broadly supportive testimony on Saturday. The bill would reverse recent action by the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board that banned distilleries from serving mixed cocktails in their tasting rooms.

Committee chairman Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau, said the legislation doesn’t address all the issues surrounding distillery tasting rooms, but that it’s needed to settle the confusion.

“I do not think it’s the final word,” he said, “but it’s a fix that’s needed rather urgently.”

The legislation was put forward by Rep. Chris Tuck. D-Anchorage, after the ABC Board decided that his 2014 bill that created tasting rooms didn’t cover cocktails (he argues it does). Distilleries opened throughout the state following the law–including in Juneau, Haines, Fairbanks and Anchorage–to take advantage of the law. The distillery tasting rooms come with limitations on hours, drink limits and entertainment, but have become popular attractions.

Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, sits on the committee and said she went and visited two distilleries in the last year.

“I don’t have a problem with what this bill is requesting to do,” she said. “The hours are limited, the facilities are limited to what they can entertain. I think we heard plenty of compelling testimony from those who’ve made significant investments in building and operating these distilleries.”

The opposition to the bill, as well was the push for the state to reconsider distilleries’ ability to serve cocktails, is the bar industry, which is represented by CHARR interest group (the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association). The groups argue that cocktails were never envisioned by the original legislation and that distilleries are acting illegally by imitating bars. An editorial by Darwin Biewer, chairman of CHARR’s board, published in the organization’s magazine calls the move a “hostile takeover” by “a small group of self-serving individuals.”

Their message has at least found a sympathetic ear with the committee’s two Republican members, Reps. Dan Saddler and Dave Talerico. The two largely echoed CHARR’s slippery slope argument. The issue, however, isn’t completely partisan and House Bill 269 has four Republican co-sponsors (Millett, Sullivan-Leonard, Knopp and Rauscher).

Neither Republican attempted to hold the bill up by requiring a vote, so it advanced from committee with a simple motion. The legislation now heads to the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which should be its final stop before a vote on the House floor. It would then head to the Senate.

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