I’m pretty open about my love of local distilleries here in Washington. I’ve written about many, sipped lots of delicious products, and find the people behind them to be a creative, hard-working, friendly bunch of folks. They aren’t folks who are looking to make oodles of dollars, but instead just want to bottle up memorable gins, whiskies, liqueurs, and much more, using as many local ingredients as they can. Sadly, right now, there’s an issue in the Washington State legislature that could spell trouble for a lot of these small businesses.
What’s the problem? It started with a really good idea, strangely enough, when the Washington Distillers Guild backed a bill, Senate Bill 5549, that was created to help smaller distillers in rural locations—distilleries are mainly family-run, and very family-friendly—attract customers and remain in business. This bill would have made it possible for the distilleries to have two offsite tastings rooms (they’re not allowed any offsite right now) where they could serve mixed drinks to demonstrate how to use their products, and to sell products from other distilleries. It was based on existing laws from other alcohol-producing industries – wineries, for example, can have four offsite tasting rooms.
But after the bill passed in the Senate Ways and Means Committee earlier in the current session, Senator Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma added an amendment that would make it illegal for minors to be in distilleries and their tasting rooms. According to a story on KING 5 News, amendment supporters are worried about the increasing number of places that alcohol is available; Darneille told KING 5 News, “Taking children into venues where the only purpose is drinking is the worst form of negligence.”
But that’s not how AJ Temple, owner of Temple Distilling in Lynnwood, sees it. “Our tasting rooms are merely an extension of our business—a way to engage and educate the public on our spirits we produce that we are so proud of. We aren't running bars—although we're required to be trained under the same license as a bartender—and we typically aren't just employees pouring spirits. Walking into a craft distillery typically means you'll be meeting the owner or someone close to them, someone who cares about the business and will be responsible pouring samples to patrons.”
Small distillers say this amendment could prove disastrous for them since many of their visitors include whole families that support these small businesses and the “grain to glass” movement. Snohomish-based Skip Rock distilleries’ Ryan Hembree told us, “I'd say almost half of our customers who come into our tasting room are families or have a minor with them as part of the group. We are a production facility, and people of all ages love seeing how our products are made. Having to turn away customers because a minor is part of the party would be a huge hit to our business.”
But it’s not just visitors affected. Many family-run distilleries have a home and family situation similar to Temple’s: “Our team consists of my wife, Jamie, and me. If minors were to be banned completely from our distillery, it would mean losing a large portion of our time for work; our kids aren't old enough yet for school, and we cannot afford full-time childcare, so one of us would have to stay back with the kids during the week.”
Our local distillery universe, while having a large number of awards under its belt, is still very small in the big booze picture, making up around 1% of total spirits revenue in Washington. The national average for what’s called “craft spirits” (meaning the more local, non-giant corporation spirits, more-or-less) is 3% of the total. In neighboring Oregon, local spirits make up 11% of the total – they allow up to five tasting rooms per distillery, too.
So, what do you do if you want to support local distilleries and small businesses? It’s not too late to have your voice heard; you can call your legislator and let him or her know your thoughts about the bill and amendment.
Here’s what Temple told us: “We absolutely need this bill to pass – and it's one that we as the guild spent hours crafting and it is hugely important to our struggling industry. However, if the amendment that was made isn't modified or removed, we as the guild would have no choice but to oppose the bill we painstakingly put together.”
Of course, if you also want to pick up some local spirits or liqueurs on your way home or order them next time you’re at your favorite restaurant, that’d be great, too!