ABC Board vote prevents distilleries from serving mixed drinks

On Jan. 23, the Alaska Alcohol Beverage Control Board voted 3-1 to approve new regulations prohibiting distilleries from serving and mixing cocktails.

These new rules would require distilleries to serve the alcohol separately from the non-alcoholic ingredients, such as orange juice or cream. It would be up to the customer to mix it.

A previous bill that was approved in 2014, House Bill 309, stated that distilleries could have tasting rooms and serve a “distillery’s product.” In late 2017, it was brought to the board’s attention that the bill did not specify what exactly that meant.

Was a cocktail still considered a distillery’s product?

After months of discussion, the board decided that it wasn’t. In December, Alaska’s Alcohol and Marijuana Office received over 500 letters from Alaskans regarding the issue and Brandon Howard, co-founder of Amalga Distillery in Juneau, is one of the people who reached out to AMCO to express his disapproval.

“To be honest, I was not at all surprised… It’s upsetting but it’s also exactly what we expected,” Howard said.

Jeff Dumps lives in Fairbanks and has been in Alaska for 16 years. He says that “it’s a shame” more rules are being put in place.

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“It’s ridiculous,” Dumps said. “Does that generate more money for [the state]? Does it do anything effectively to regulate something, like safety?”

A draft document of the regulation on AMCO’s website shows an amendment stating that “flavoring ethanol or alcohol that was not distilled in the distillery” would not qualify under a distillery license. It also includes language that says employees are unable to combine the alcohol with other products.

For Howard, it’s important to be part of the community. New regulations would affect businesses and consumers.

“People love their local breweries, they love their local distilleries. As a craft producer, we love being a part of our community,” Howard said. “It’s a part of our brand.”

Robert Klein is the ABC board chairman and also the CEO of the Anchorage Distillery. He did not participate in votes the board held and describes AMCO’s approach as “getting down to dotted i’s and crossed t’s.”

“I think there’s always been bar owners who didn’t like the idea that distilleries were serving drinks,” Klein said. “That’s the contention and that’s what led AMCO to take a closer look at the language.”

Dumps also says that the growing popularity of distilleries may have played a role in tighter regulations.

“Bars had their, you know, liquor licenses, they were breaking in the money and then come along these distilleries and breweries that are popping up… I think what’s happening is that they’re taking some of that market share from the established liquor vendors and bars,” Dumps said.

It was House Majority Leader Chris Tuck who wrote the original bill in 2014. Earlier this month, he proposed another, HB 269, that would make amendments and allow distilleries to serve cocktails. So far, 11 other representatives have sponsored the bill.

Howard says that he looks forward to it passing through legislation.

“I’m excited to move forward with getting HB 269 passed,” Howard said. “I think the goal is to keep our heads down and work hard on seeing the passage of that bill… As far as our business goes, I think it’ll be good for people to see how ridiculous it is for us to be serving and handing them a separate glass of gin and a separate glass of tonic.”

“I think it’s going to be ultimately up to people voicing their opinions to their representatives,” Dumps said.

It is unclear when Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will be signing the regulation and, as of Jan. 26, a public notice has not yet been released by AMCO.

The first public testimony and hearing for HB 269 will occur on Jan. 30.