Alaska liquor laws don’t play around EvanErickson-SpenardRoadhouse - Spenard Roadhouse’s Bourbon Passport event was suddenly retired in March 2013, and now all that remains are the names of the few that managed to complete it in time. Photo by Evan Erickson. Full view

Alaska liquor laws don’t play around

Where else can you compliment your bacon of the month with a flight of small batch kentucky bourbon? For the last four years the Spenard Roadhouse has been catering to these indulgences. In the Roadhouse’s infancy marketing manager Darcy Kniefel flew to Kentucky to sample bourbons and noticed connoisseurship of small batch whiskeys. This trend would become the Roadhouse’s Bourbon Passport. For each whiskey sampled customers receive a stamp in a little booklet containing the names of 30 different bourbons. When you fill the booklet your name goes up on a plaque and you are sent home with a commemorative T-shirt. This practice suddenly ended in March 2013 when the Alcoholic Beverage Control board informed the restaurant that the Bourbon Passport was in violation of Alaskan statute.

Since the birth of the nation Americans have been drinking alcohol. Prohibition was repealed nationally in 1933, but under the 21st amendment states could still exert control over the importation of alcohol. After the repeal, local option laws were passed in some states which allowed for counties and municipalities to make their own decisions regarding alcohol. This is the reason for drive-thru daiquiris in Louisiana and warm beer in Oklahoman liquor stores.

Today there are hundreds of dry counties and muncipalities, meaning the sale, importation and, in certain cases, possession of alcohol are banned. In Alaska there are currently 96 communities which prohibit the sale of alcohol. 34 of these have in addition banned its importation and possession.

According to the ABC board, the Municipality of Anchorage, a wet community, had 415 active liquor licenses in 2012.

Alaskan laws, compared to some other states, can be considered lenient, with businesses only barred from serving alcohol from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. , but in other instances they can also be deemed harsh. One example is when the Anchorage Daily News brought to light in Jan. 2012 that APD officers had gone undercover into bars to arrest patrons for being intoxicated.

In the case of Spenard Roadhouse the statute in violation was part of Sec. 04.16.015 which states that establishments that sell alcoholic beverages by the drink may not “encourage or permit an organized game or contest on the licensed premises that involves drinking alcoholic beverages or the awarding of alcoholic beverages as prizes.” This is also the law behind non-alcoholic beer pong and the non-alcoholic beer drinking contests which have taken place in past Fur Rendezvous.

The demise of the Bourbon Passport was part of a routine inspection according to Aleks Pfaffe, general manager of Spenard Roadhouse. The program had flown under the radar for several years. One of the possible reasons is that the ABC has only four investigators for the entire state.

Prior to 2012 the ABC was housed under the Department of Public Safety. It originally switched from the Department of Commerce to Public Safety in 2003 by administrative order of then-governor Frank Murkowski who had campaigned on curbing alcohol and drug abuse. On the final day of the 2012 legislative session however the ABC switched hands back to the Department of Commerce. This was mostly the result of intense lobbying by the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailer’s Association (CHARR).

“The move to Public Safety implies that our industry is engaged in criminal activities. Alaska CHARR would like your help to restore a respectful relationship between our industry and licensing agency that oversees it,” Alaska CHARR wrote in its 2012 legislative priorities booklet.

Some believe the change to commerce is blatant manipulation by the liquor industry.

“The people in the alcohol business clearly want to see less enforcement and that’s why this bill was so important to them,” Dermot Cole of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner wrote.

Robert Beasley, enforcement supervisor for ABC, who served during the switch to commerce doesn’t believe that enforcement has changed at all. He also doesn’t see the legislation as only beneficial to the liquor industry.

“In a lot of the testimony the licensees felt more comfortable dealing with commerce,” Beasley said.

There is a dichotomy of trying to enforce and regulate alcohol while at the same time promoting commerce. There are large profits as well as large public health costs. Which statutes are enforced and which are ignored is constantly changing.

There are statutes which prohibit “happy hours,” don’t allow customers to be served more than two drinks at a time, or be served unlimited drinks at a fixed price. These statutes are designed to combat binge drinking and they are the same group of statutes that apply to the Bourbon Passport.

“The Bourbon Passport was in the spirit of coming in and sipping on a nice whiskey,” Pfaffe said. Another comparable program, retired for over 10 years, was the Connoisseur’s Club at Chilkoot Charlie’s. The Connoisseur’s Club dealt strictly in beer, particularly some of the first microbrews to be offered in Anchorage. Membership was gained when a customer tried every single brew from a long list. Members jackets and a place on the Connoisseur’s Club plaque were guaranteed to those who succeeded.

If it can be said that the Connoisseur’s Club was about beer appreciation then can it be said that the Bourbon Passport was about bourbon appreciation? Its apparent that legislation was created to promote public health and protect our community from alcohol abuse. Roaming through Spenard on a saturday night, binge drinking isn’t hard to find. Even with the Bourbon Passport the Spenard Roadhouse has never been the leader in overconsumption. For legislation to be effective it needs to strike at the heart of the problem.

Written by Evan Erickson