California distillers raised a glass this week in celebration of what they called a partial legislative victory. For the first time since Prohibition, it will be legal in the state for most spirit makers to charge a fee for samples.
Until the Taste California Act was passed – effective Jan. 1 – it was illegal to sell distilled spirits at the place they are made – even a sip. Distillers could only give their products away, while wineries and breweries could sell samples and bottles. Brandy makers were allowed to sell their bottles, but forbidden from giving away tastes.
“The state’s liquor laws are among the most convoluted and restrictive in the country,” said Arthur Hartunian, outgoing president of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, which has about 40 members. He is also the owner of Napa Valley Distillery, which makes vodka, whiskey and lemon liqueur. “In the meantime, California is the No. 1 market for distilled spirits in the nation. Basically, we drink half the booze in the country.”
The new law, sponsored by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and signed by the governor, still won’t allow distillers (with the exception of brandy makers) to sell bottles directly to the public. Only a licensed distributor can do that. Distillers say many distributors won’t take on small craft producers, leaving them no way to get their product to market.
“There is still this kind of fear that if you buy it at the place of production, you’re not going to act responsibly,” Skinner said. “It’s a long tradition that the state has been loath to change.”
She said pressure from the liquor distributor lobby has kept the laws tight. But at least now, they will be able to recoup the cost of providing complimentary tastes to their visitors, Hartunian said.
“It will allow me to hire someone full time in the tasting room,” said Timo Marshall of Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol, which makes vodka, gin, sloe gin and whiskey. Marshall said he was losing roughly $200 a day giving out tastes to promote his brand.
At Alameda’s St. George Spirits, makers of Hangar One Vodka, absinthe, rum, whiskey, bourbon and eaux de vie, the tasting room loses $100,000 a year, said Andie Ferman, the tasting room manager. St. George hosted Tuesday’s celebration and media event.
The new law, however, does set limits on how many samples a distiller can serve – six half-ounce pours.
Lance Winters, St. George’s master distiller and the guild’s incoming president, told the room that despite California being the leader in the artisan distillery movement, its laws are among the tightest, even lagging behind traditionally alcohol-conservative places like Utah.
“Sixty to 80 percent of the economy is fueled by small business,” he said. “We’re not asking for anything special, like tax breaks. We just want a level playing field.”