Late bill amendment allows distillery cocktails to continue

Janilyn Heger mixes a cocktail at the Skagway Spirits distillery in July, 2017. (Photo by Abbey Collins)

The Alaska Legislature gave distilleries the green light to continue serving cocktails last week. The move was made through a last-minute bill amendment, after major legislation that would have overhauled the state’s alcohol laws was killed for now. It comes after months of uncertainty for manufacturers throughout the state.

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Skagway’s one distillery, Skagway Spirits, will mark it’s first anniversary in June.

Lucas Heger’s family owns the business, that started serving drinks just as confusion began developing over the practice of mixing cocktails in tasting rooms.

A new interpretation of the law that allows tasting rooms to operate, by the state’s alcoholic beverage control board, called into question whether mixed drinks could be part of that operation.

Heger says he has “mixed emotions” about the legislature’s clarification.

“Definitely frustration to one degree or another,” Heger said. “But we’re happy that we’re still able to mix cocktails at this moment and are hopeful that in the next session things will go a little more smoothly and we won’t have so many things just kind of coming out of left field.”

The new language came through a last-minute bill amendment by a lawmaker and beverage dispensary license holder. Fairbanks Democratic Representative Adam Wool offered the language after legislation known as SB76, that would have overhauled the state’s alcohol laws, was taken off the table for now.

The bill was killed after a move by some legislators to reduce the amount breweries and distilleries can serve in tasting rooms. That was introduced in the House Labor and Commerce Committee where Wool is vice chair.

Wool says when SB76 failed to move through the legislature, he looked to address the cocktail issue elsewhere.

“I really thought Title IV was going to pass with the cocktail language on it,” Wool said. “But since it didn’t, I told people I would do my best to get cocktails out there and that was the best place to do it.”

Wool’s amendment was ultimately included in a surprising place, in SB45.

“Which is a contractor’s sort of licensing bill,” Wool said. “And because they all have licensing in them, the amendment was able to be put on there.”

The new language allows distillery license holders to combine the distillery’s product — alcohol manufactured on site —  with other ingredients. It specifically mentions mixers, liquids or garnishes.

It does not allow distilleries to serve drinks mixed with alcohol not produced on site. That means drinks like manhattans or martinis made with vermouth are still off the table.

Pete Hanson is President and CEO of Alaska CHARR — Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association. He says he sees the new language on cocktails as a necessary clarification.

“The rules have been confusing up until now,” Hanson said. “Some regulations were put in place. But weren’t actually enforced. And people have been confused as to what can actually go on. So frankly, this needed to be clarified. It’s a good thing it’s clarified. And distilleries can essentially go on what they’ve been doing already.”

Heger, from Skagway Spirits, says his business is looking ahead to when Title IV comes back to the legislature.

“We’re hopeful we’ll get the support we need from our lawmakers and legislators to help grow this business, because that’s what we want,” Heger said. “We want to be able to contribute to the community and to the economy of our state.”

For now, the states ten distilleries are cleared to continue shaking, stirring, mixing and selling most cocktails.