A far-ranging rewrite to Alaska’s alcohol laws is dead thanks to a former bar owner’s amendment that slashed the serving size limits for brewery and distillery tasting rooms.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, announced today that he is no longer pushing for action on his Senate Bill 76, which had been a years-in-the-making cleanup and reform of Alaska’s alcohol laws, because of the controversial last-minute amendment.
The bill is currently in the House Finance Committee, which has been consumed with work on the must-pass capital budget. With the Legislature fast approaching the end of session, many legislators doubted there would be time to review and fix the bill.
“I introduced this bill because I agree with and admire its spirit of consensus,” Micciche said in a prepared statement. “A primary goal during the formation of this bill was to protect the rights that Alaskan business owners have today. This amendment goes against all of that. I will not allow a singular special interest group to hijack my legislation to the detriment of other Alaskan businesses because they are viewed as competition. It is antithetical to Alaskan values, small business and economic freedom.”
The fight stems from a battle between the established bar and restaurant business and the budding distillery and brewery business. With declining overall consumption of alcohol, the established businesses have gone on the offensive against breweries and distilleries that they argue are acting like bars (even though they have strict serving limits, must close by 8 p.m. and are banned from having live entertainment).
As part of the fight, the bar industry and its interest group, CHARR, challenged the ability of distilleries to serve cocktails in their tasting rooms. CHARR and its members argued a 2014 state law didn’t specifically mention cocktails so they should be banned, and the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office agreed (also eventually going after “fun” in tasting rooms).
A standalone fix for the cocktail issue stalled in the House Labor and Commerce Committee, where the bar-owning Rep. Adam Wool said it would be taken up as a part of Senate Bill 76.
Though distillery owners had pushed for a solution to the cocktail issue, they warned against including it in the far-ranging Senate Bill 76 out of concern that it would culminate in today’s exact action. It would derail the overall bill and its many other important changes, they argued.
“We had let the cocktail issue die and didn’t want to take it up in Senate Bill 76 because it’s such a contentious issue,” said Juneau-based Amalga Distillery owner Brandon Howard in an interview with The Midnight Sun last week.
Still, the House Labor and Commerce Committee pushed ahead, introducing a new version of the bill last week that specifically allows distilleries to mix their spirits with non-alcoholic mixers, but adopted an amendment by Rep. Louise Stutes, a former bar owner, that would slash serving sizes for tasting rooms by a third. The argument largely stemmed from a focus on the “tasting” part of “tasting room,” and backers argued that such sizes constituted more than a taste.
The change would reduce brewery serving sizes from 36 ounces to 24 (which goes from two pints and change to one pint and change at the popular HooDoo Brewing Company in Fairbanks) and distillery serving sizes from three ounces to two.
The change was met with immediate backlash from distilleries and breweries, who had up until that point not been involved in the fight over the state’s alcohol laws.
“This is a game-changer, especially for the small breweries of the state,” Howard said. “You basically had a third of your tasting room revenue cut off. They built a business model on the existing regulations.”
Micciche’s announcement echoes the concerns of the breweries and distilleries, calling the amendment an “unfair and self-serving” change that’s “a direct cut to the income of Alaska businesses that comprise roughly four percent of the alcohol industry.”
Senate Bill 76 was the second time Micciche had introduced such legislation. The previous effort had been snarled by last-minute opposition by CHARR, allowing just a few pieces of the bill to become law as a separate piece of legislation.
“SB 76 was never meant to be the last alcohol bill in the State of Alaska,” Micciche said in the prepared statement. “It is a critical starting point from which tougher conversations can be based on in separate, smaller, and more focused pieces of legislation in the future.”