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House OKs bill easing liquor regulations

RALEIGH — A bill advancing decades of work to reform the state’s liquor regulations passed in the N.C. House and heads now to the Senate.

House Bill 890 is an all-encompassing measure that aims to help distillers to succeed in a crowded, growing and competitive industry. It also works to level the proverbial playing field for distillers, making rules more consistent with those governing breweries and wineries.

Lawmakers voted 110-10 to move the bill forward. Nine Republicans and one Democrat voted against the measure. Many of the alcohol reform bills in recent years were guided in the House by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, who retired. The biggest alcohol-reform proponent in the Senate, Rick Gunn of Alamance, has also retired. Sen. Todd Johnson, R-Union, is sponsoring Senate Bill 453, which is similar to H.B. 890 but less comprehensive.

Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Henderson County Republican and McGrady's successor, is one of the House leaders in efforts to reform the 80-plus-year-old N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control system and is a sponsor of H.B. 890. It’s likely the much-debated bill will continue to change as it moves through Senate committees, as was the case in the House.

“North Carolina is synonymous with hospitality,” said Moffitt, chairman of the House ABC Committee and author of the bills. “The success of the thousands of small businesses in this industry is a cornerstone of a thriving economy. This past year, these folks have been challenged in unprecedented ways — so it makes sense that we move forward in creative ways to provide a lifeline to them however we can.”

The bill, which incorporates some measures that by themselves cleared one chamber of the General Assembly, would allow people to order online and pick products up from state ABC stores, double the size of growlers from two liters to four, loosen rules for tours in N.C. distilleries and allow distillers to sell their products at festivals. Moffitt also sponsored a bill entitled "Bring Business Back Downtown," which lets cities create outdoor zones where alcohol is allowed. That bill also passed in the House and went on to the Senate. Under the Legislature's crossover rule, bills had to pass either the House or Senate by Thursday to be eligible for consideration during the two-year legislative session that ends next year.

As it stands, distilleries can open only when a local ABC is open. This bill changes that, allowing distilleries to offer tours, tastings and cocktails from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. The bill would also establish a spirituous liquor council, similar to the N.C. Wine and Grape Council.

In a committee meeting this week, Moffitt said he’s trying to work within the state’s three-tiered distribution system to find ways to offer more flexibility to producers and consumers alike. The Distillers Association of N.C. supports the bill as a needed step toward alcohol parity and believes it would greatly help the state’s 90-plus distillers to succeed and to prosper.