It's Just a Bill, Yes It's Only a Bill, But...

At the end of last year, Washington State gained its first licensed distillery, Dry Fly. It didn't take a genius to smell a Hooch Rush on the horizon. Now that someone's finally broken the 80 proof barrier, many interested parties lie in wait to bottle the next hot spirit. Rusty Figgins, wine guy extraordinaire, has an operation waiting for licensing approval, and XXX marks spots in both Woodinville and Ballard for future gin mills. So many people now have many different interests in a wee little bill on our Capital Hill concerning craft distilleries. Bill 6496 seeks to further define what will be a Washington State craft distillery and also grants distilleries certain rights enjoyed by breweries and wineries, namely 1 and 2 below. The bill has already made it through the House, now it just needs to make it through the Senate.

If Bill 6496 passes the Senate, craft distilleries will:

1. Be able to SELL THEIR OWN PRODUCT. Did you know this? Right now, a distillery is not allowed by Washington state law to sell its own product, as distilled spirits must be sold through Washington State liquor stores only. The new law would let a distillery sell 2 liters of alcohol per person, per day.

2. Be able to give away free booze: (Well samples anyway) 1/2 ounce samples, up to 2 ounces of liquor per visitor, per day. Wineries can do this, breweries can do this, but distilleries cannot under the laws now.

3. Be required to use at least half of their raw materials from Washington State. This is the major point of the bill that had people freaking out.

When talking to the different sides of this issue, two clear viewpoints of distilleries emerged. One sees a distillery much like a microbrewery, creating a product not bound to using local ingredients (which would restrict profit). The other sees the advantage of setting a different bar for Washington, treating a distillery more like a winery and tying it to a place.

Another argument for the bill rests in the allowing of spirit sampling. I talked to more than a few representatives of some favorite spirits for their unofficial opinion. Basically, any loosening up by the LCB is A-OK with them. "They're opening something up, and that's exciting for anyone who sells liquor. A small gain for a local distiller means I'm that much closer to being able to put my products in front of consumers," says one Seattle-based importer.

Let's face it, the LCB is a negative, punitive organization when it comes to the substance they regulate. They have not been booze friendly, regardless of the overarching need and explanation to ensure taxation, and have been highly resistant to distilleries. In this situation, I find myself asking: just who is the David and who is the Goliath? The real nugget of the bill, in my opinion, comes under Section 2, item number 5, a new section added before passing the House. It states, "Distilling is an agricultural practice."

This will keep the plans of some people in check. No one is really set up to manufacture neutral grain spirits in our state, unless it's to fortify wines. Even among micro distilleries, it's not unusual to truck in neutral grain spirits from parts unknown, usually Canada, to act as a product base. Now craft distilleries would have to make their own neutral grain spirits at least partly from Washington State grains, as Dry Fly does. The 51% percent local counts raw ingredients, not final product (or distilleries could just dilute with tap water and Bob's your uncle.)

Word is that the LCB wanted this agricultural distinction in the bill. It sure will limit any expansion of the distillery category, micro or otherwise. By passing this bill, the LCB makes it much more difficult to be a craft distillery, makes being a craft distillery much more lucrative, and promotes a different approach to looking at the hard stuff. Whether they mean to or not.

But within all of this, the state will still assert it owns the biggest piece of the pie. Any distillery wanting to sample or sell their wares will buy samples of their own product through the state, and must sell the product at a price set by the state. Because too much freedom? Das ist verboten!

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