Sample sales present snag for overhaul of state alcohol laws

Amalga Distillery co-owner Brandon Howard opposes a proposal to reduce the amount breweries and distilleries can sell as samples. His Juneau business has benefited from the sales. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

It’s not clear whether the Alaska Legislature will completely revise state alcohol laws for the first time in 35 years. Some brewery and distillery owners want to head off a proposal limiting how much they can serve customers.

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Getting alcohol producers, wholesalers and retailers to agree can be a challenge. The concerns of groups that want to prevent and treat alcohol abuse make it even more complicated. But until last week, these groups were in agreement over the need to make changes.

At a Senate Finance Committee meeting in April, Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche described what went into the legislation, Senate Bill 76, to change the state’s alcohol laws, known as Title IV.

“We brought together a group of folks that perhaps don’t always see eye to eye, and over an extensive series of meetings, brought it – the Title IV you see today – where they have agreed that this is the path forward for the industry,” Micciche said.

Among the many changes the bill would make: it would adjust license fees to cover a bigger share of state costs to regulate alcohol sales, it would simplify the licenses that alcohol sellers must have and it would make the penalties more consistent for businesses whose workers sell alcohol to minors.

Until last week, it didn’t address the divisive issue of how much breweries and distilleries can sell directly to the public as samples. But on Friday, the House Labor and Commerce Committee amended the bill, dropping the amount of beer and liquor samples these businesses can sell by a third.

Brandon Howard is the co-owner and co-founder of Amalga Distillery in Juneau. His business’s tasting room has helped attract customers’ interest since it opened nearly a year ago.

“When they visit a brewery or a distillery, they expect to have an experience in a tasting room,” Howard said. “And it’s where we build our brand. It’s where we establish ourselves.”

Howard is concerned about the late change to the bill.

“To come in and potentially undermine this bill, that’s been worked on by a steering committee over the last six years at the end of session is irresponsible and selfish,” Howard said. “I mean, it’s unconscionable.”

But there are bar owners who support the change. They see the current laws that allow breweries and distillers to serve alcohol as disturbing what was once an even playing field, turning it into one that’s unfair. That’s because bar owners have to pay many thousands of dollars for their licenses.

Abby Williams, co-owner of Louie’s Douglas Inn in Douglas, said she expected competition with similar bars.

“What I didn’t expect going into business and into debt by purchasing a beverage dispensary license and doing an extensive remodel on a building, that I would soon be competing with the manufacturers: those that manufacture or distill a bottle of liquor for an amount substantially less than the price I’m required to pay to the distributors,” Williams said.

The bill still has a couple of steps where it could be changed or stalled. It goes to the House Finance Committee next. Then it would face a vote on the House floor. And if the House passes it, the Senate – which already passed it – will have to decide whether to agree to the House’s changes and send it to Gov. Bill Walker’s desk.