In a 3-1 vote, the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has upended the state’s distilleries by approving new regulations that forbid the distilleries from serving mixed drinks. The state’s nine licensed distilleries have previously testified that mixed drinks served in approved tasting rooms are key parts of their individual business plans.
The board’s decision came at the end of a daylong meeting Tuesday in Juneau’s Centennial Hall.
Under the new rules, which go into effect when signed by the lieutenant governor, licensed distilleries may provide mixers, and they may sell alcohol distilled on site, but it will be up to the customer to mix them into a single drink. The two-drink limit at all distilleries will remain in effect.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. Here’s your 1.5 ounces of gin, and here’s your cup of tonic. If I dump the gin into the tonic, I’m breaking the law,” said Brandon Howard, a cofounder of Juneau’s Amalga Distillery.
The new rule goes into effect 30 days after Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott signs the new regulation. It is not clear when that signing will take place, and it is extraordinarily unlikely that he would refuse to sign.
“His signature is essentially pro forma, and he has signed nearly every regulation that has landed on his desk,” said Austin Baird, a spokesman for the governor’s office.
While no public testimony was allowed Tuesday in Juneau, the alcohol board received more than 540 letters from Alaskans during a monthlong public comment period in December.
Erika McConnell, director of the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, said during the meeting that “probably into 80 percent or 90 percent of the comments” were in favor of keeping the existing interpretation and allowing distilleries to serve mixed drinks.
Despite that outpouring of public support, members of the board felt constrained by an ambiguous state law approved by the Legislature in 2014. That law states that distilleries “may sell not more than three ounces a day of the distillery’s product to a person for consumption on the premises.”
It does not define “a distillery’s product.”
Until late 2017, that wasn’t a problem. Distilleries operated under the assumption that cocktails were allowed by existing law, and because the issue was never brought to the state’s attention, it was never considered.
In August 2017, AMCO received a complaint that Juneau’s Amalga distillery was mixing its alcohol with vermouth, an alcoholic bitter, that it bought elsewhere. When state regulators investigated, they were confronted with the ambiguous law. McConnell said Tuesday that the complaint did not come from someone who holds a bar license.
The alcohol board has struggled for months with the issue. Board chairman Robert Klein works for an Anchorage distillery and has recused himself from votes on the topic. That recusal has occasionally left the board rudderless and sometimes with a 2-2 tie as it attempted to resolve the issue.
In a precautionary move Tuesday, the alcohol board granted director McConnell the ability to cast a tiebreaking vote. That turned out to be unnecessary, as board members Rex Leath of Wasilla, Robert Evans of Nome, and Thomas Manning of Juneau all voted in favor of a regulation proposal that resolves the ambiguity. The sole “no” vote came from board vice chair Ellen Ganley of Fairbanks.
Manning participated in the meeting telephonically from Mexico.
“I think we have a duty as a board to come to a conclusion that’s going to create clarity,” said Leath, explaining his decision shortly before the final vote.
Manning said he feels allowing distilleries to serve cocktails makes them too much like a bar.
“I really think that the distilleries should operate a tasting room without operating as a bar or (beverage dispensary license),” he said.
Maura Selenak, who co-founded Amalga Distillery with Howard, said after the vote that the state’s distilleries will now take their fight to the Alaska Legislature.
House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, author of the 2014 legislation, has introduced a new bill to amend state law and allow distilleries to serve cocktails. That measure, House Bill 269, has the support of 11 other House lawmakers so far but has not been scheduled for its initial hearing.
“I think we’ve seen our appeals and public comment isn’t effective in this forum, so I think we’re going to pursue the legislative fix,” she said.
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