Eighty-four Years After the Twenty-first Amendment, Are North Carolina’s Liquor Laws Ready for the Twenty-first Century? | North Carolina | Indy Week

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Eighty-four Years After the Twenty-first Amendment, Are North Carolina’s Liquor Laws Ready for the Twenty-first Century?

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Durham Distillery co-owner Melissa Katrincic is talking excitedly, listing all the things SB 155 would let her do: hire another two or three retail employees, expand business hours, pay off debt twice as fast, maybe put money toward an expansion.

The bill would allow distilleries to directly sell to customers up to five bottles per person per year. Currently, the limit is one bottle per customer per year. That may not seem like much, but just two years ago, distilleries were barred from selling any bottles directly to customers. As Katrincic explains, SB 155 would allow Durham Distillery to not only expand its production and retail operation, but also experiment more with recipes and receive more feedback from customers.

According to Katrincic, about 70 percent of people who tour the distillery take a bottle home with them. Half would buy more than one if it were allowed.

"It's so hard for us to say, 'You bought that bottle nine months ago. Legally, I can't sell you another,'" she says.

Perhaps more important, SB 155 would subtly chip away at the near-monopoly the state has over liquor sales in North Carolina, one of seventeen control states in the country. Besides the one bottle per year you can buy at a distillery, all booze sales happen at ABC stores run by local governments.

"Senate Bill 155 would start to illustrate how restrictive that control state framework is," says Michael Boyer, managing attorney at Carolina Craft Legal, a firm that specializes in alcoholic beverage law.

SB 155 has plenty of cheerleaders outside of the distilling world, too. If it passes, another provision will allow cities and counties to permit restaurants to begin selling alcohol at ten a.m. on Sunday, as opposed to noon. (Groceries stores and other retailers would still have to wait.)

The state's current law on Sunday sales has been in effect since at least 1963, a remnant of so-called blue laws that set aside Sunday as a day of rest and worship. North Carolina briefly enacted a broader Sunday closing law in 1961, but it was struck down by the state Supreme Court the next year. Yet the Sunday alcohol sales law remained.

Ideally, says Hardister, who is sponsoring a companion bill in the House, there would be no restrictions on Sunday alcohol sales whatsoever. "People are allowed to make that decision as adults every other day of the week," he says.

Not everyone agrees.

There are two main fronts of opposition to HB 500 and SB 155. Both have an interest in maintaining the status quo. One is biblical, the other financial.

For Mark Creech, director of the Raleigh-based Christian Action League, HB 500 and SB 155 are very troubling. Sunday alcohol sales are disrespectful to churches, he wrote on the organization's website, and HB 500 would undermine a system that ensures checks and balances on a dangerous commodity.

Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Fullsteam brewery - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • Photo By Ben McKeown
  • Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Fullsteam brewery

Creech spoke against both bills during a committee hearing last week and detailed his opposition in a two-part article on the league's website titled "The Two Worst Pieces of Alcohol Legislation I've Seen in Nearly Twenty Years of Addressing Alcohol Policy."

"Both of these bills are very egregious," he wrote, "But the worst of the two, I believe, is HB 500. It must die or you can kiss alcohol public safety and health goodbye!"

Creech, who was not available for comment, seems to be carrying the torch for religious and public health objections to these bills. During last week's committee hearing, most comments on either side of the issue dealt with economics and consumer choice, not morality.

"There are social conservative forces at work at any kind of alcohol issue that comes before the General Assembly," says Metzger. "But they don't hold the sway they used to. The real challenge for changing these laws is they do have an effect on the wholesaler tier, and the wholesaler tier wants to hold on to their piece."

The N.C. Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association has come out against HB 500 for myriad reasons, but they all boil down to wholesalers not wanting to be cut out of a lucrative business: Raising the cap would harm the state's $1.9 billion distribution industry and the 3,939 employees who rely on it, the association says. It would allow beer industry giants to self-distribute, reduce consumer choices, and inundate an already-crowded craft beer market. And, the association suggests, many brewers aren't responsible enough to distribute their own beer. Last week, the association put out a memo arguing that 23 percent of brewers are not compliant on their taxes, so "it makes no sense to expand self-distribution."

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