In the early 1900s, to circumvent Atlanta’s liquor license restrictions, creative entrepreneurs opened museums and sideshows. Pay a nickel to see the blind tiger or two-headed pig and you could enjoy a glass of corn whiskey—on the house. Ever wondered why old-time saloons and bars have names that evoke menageries? There’s your answer.
This week, governor Nathan Deal signed into law the so-called beer jobs bill, which, after squeezing its way through the General Assembly, has morphed into a twenty first century version of the old sight-impaired tiger ruse. What supporters wanted: An overhaul of the state’s restrictive and byzantine sales and distribution laws to allow craft brewers to sell directly to consumers and retailers, bypassing the current three-tier system that puts wholesale distributors in the middle. What they got: A modified version of Senate Bill 63 (the go-to journalistic cliché seems to be “watered down”) that allows breweries to offer beer for on-site consumption or in six-pack equivalent take-home “souvenirs.” Along the way, the bill expanded to include distilleries, which will be able to package 750ml in “souvenir” product with tours.
Given that this legislation started with the words “malt” and “beverage” in every other line, coverage of law’s evolution and its eventual passage have focused on the beer industry’s response. I suggest you read this Forbes piece for background on the craft beer business and this Creative Loafing take on implications for that business given the new law. For deeper context, the AJC’s Jim Galloway deftly connects the dots between Baptists and bootleggers and explains the puritanical streak pervading alcohol legislation in Georgia.
In the meantime, what do distillers think about the new law?
“The fact that it has been signed and is causing at least limited sales to be allowed is a giant huge leap forward and away from the 1930s post-Prohibition mindset to the free market world of today,” said Erik Vonk, founder and owner of Richland Rum, based in Richland, Georgia. “So, with that as a framework, it’s a major major accomplishment.”
But, the mechanism that the law presents to breweries and distilleries is “somewhere between naïve and unethical,” Vonk said. “Here we will be, on July 1, forced to look people in the eye when they come to our distillery and ask, ‘Would you like a tour with or without a souvenir?’ Without a souvenir, it’s free. With one it is $55—the retail price of a bottle of rum.” Vonk says he does not have children, but if he did, he “wouldn’t want to bring them up this way.”
“It’s as if legislators are trying to force us to be sneaky,” he said. In other words, he’s required to sell tickets to the blind tiger show.
Mark Allen, who owns Lazy Guy Distillery in Kennesaw, crafts corn whiskey and small-batch bourbon. “Speaking on behalf of my own distillery and not on behalf of the Georgia Distillers Association, I’m pleased about SB63 and see this as a small step toward modernizing the laws which are extremely restrictive for Georgia distillers,” he said. “It’s not what I would have liked to see, nor the perfect plan, but we absolutely plan to take full advantage of this legislation to help promote our distillery and the distilling industry.”
Allen already is working on plans to “leverage this law” over the July 4 weekend. Vonk likewise says Richland Rum will begin to offer limited tour-with-souvenir programs as soon as July.
While the new law allows consumers to buy (very limited) amounts of beer and booze directly from craft producers, retailers still have to go through distributors to get product from local distillers and brewers.
The Distillery Store, a specialty wine and spirits shop, is located on Broad Street in downtown Richland—across the street from Vonk’s distillery. One of the store’s top sellers, is, unsurprisingly, Richland Rum. But Vonk can’t sell directly to the shop. When an order comes in from the Distillery Store, Vonk has to put the cases of rum on a truck and ship them to Atlanta to be processed through a wholesaler’s warehouse. After that, the rum is loaded onto another truck and schlepped back to Richland. It’s a 280-mile round trip journey for bottles of rum that could simply have been carted a few yards on a dolly.
When lawmakers come to Richland, Vonk walks them across Broad Street to illustrate the ludicrous implications of the distribution mandate. He says that he tells them, “That little store is famous. It sells rum with the largest carbon footprint in the country.”
Vonk and Allen are among a dozen or so craft distillers in Georgia that have operated despite the restrictive laws. “We have a regulatory environment designed in the 1930s to make sales as hard as possible. In spite of all that we have been doing well,” says Vonk. “I can only imagine that the gradual adaptation of the legal system to 2015 and onward will cause a lot more distilleries, wineries, and breweries to open in Georgia. That will be advantageous to everybody.”