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Garrison Brothers Distillery

Wineries and distilleries

I’m happy to keep beating this drum, but I’d really rather not have to.

The owners and patrons of Ironroot Republic Distillery in Denison hardly consider the business to be a bar in the traditional sense.

There’s no loud music or dancing. The doors closed at 5:30 p.m. most nights before the pandemic. On Saturdays, they closed at 3 p.m. Most of its business came from out-of-towners booking tours who wanted to sip the “World’s Best Bourbon,” as designated by the World Whiskies Awards.

Nonetheless, Ironroot Republic Distillery was shut down late last month with the rest of the bars in the state under Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order. Meanwhile, other businesses like restaurants, theme parks and bowling alleys are still open with limited occupancy. Abbott’s order required any business that gets 51% or more of its revenue from alcohol sales to close.

“We’re tourism industry businesses, we’re not bars. So they shouldn’t treat us like bars,” said Dan Garrison, owner of another tasting room, Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, a community in the Texas Hill Country.

Distillery, winery and even some restaurant owners with high alcohol sales say they are unfairly being caught in the crossfire of the statewide bar shutdown, despite running starkly different operations from those Abbott warned against when he issued his latest executive order.

“We’re all struggling to survive right now,” Garrison said. “And we’re about to lose a heck of a growing industry if the governor doesn’t do something.”

[…]

When Ironroot Republic Distillery shut down, most of the people who booked tours could no longer purchase bottles unless they were local to the area, owner Robert Likarish said. Delivering or mailing liquor to consumers isn’t allowed unless there’s a restaurant attached and the business has a mixed beverage permit.

Because it’s in a rural area, it’s been a challenge to get traffic to the distillery for curbside pickup. And even if people do come, state law only allows distilleries to sell two bottles of liquor to a customer within 30 days.

“Essentially, all the things that we’d normally do to help sell and push movement of our product are gone,” Likarish said.

Spencer Whelan, executive director of the Texas Whiskey Association, said the governor’s executive orders didn’t take into account the business models of distilleries and similar businesses.

“It was just kind of generally a wide-swath brush applied to everybody in the alcohol manufacturing industry if they had any kind of retail onsite consumption,” Whelan said.

Whelan is calling for the two-bottle limit to be waived and Sunday sales be allowed. But more than anything, he is urging Abbott to allow age-verified delivery — so that distillers can sell their products across the state.

[…]

Wineries, which often have spacious outdoor vineyards and patios where patrons can spread out, say they’re also being unfairly targeted.

“We were highly impacted by the shutdown and the pandemic just because we were forced to basically close our tasting room, which is where 90% of our sales are generated,” Lost Draw Cellars owner Andrew Sides said.

After missing out on sales in April and May — the months that typically perform best — the Fredericksburg winery reopened at the beginning of June with new rules: All tastings were moved outside, and only one group of people who came together was allowed at a time.

But then, along with bars, the winery was forced to close.

Sides said he wished that Abbott’s order had been more specific — his permit is different from bars’ permits, and people are largely taking the wine offsite to consume at home. It’s frustrating for him when other similar businesses — like a local salsa maker who allows onsite testing — can stay open.

“The whole intent for most tasting rooms and wineries is for people to come and try wine, buy it and leave,” he said.

As you know, I agree with all of this, even more so for outdoor tasting rooms. Let the places that serve food continue to serve food for pickup and delivery, and even for limited outside seating if they have it. None of that is particularly risky, and it will help a business community that really needs it. And of course, I’m all for dismantling our ridiculous system of regulations on beer and liquor. (Turns out that ridiculous anti-competitive beer distribution laws aren’t just for Texas, too.) Let the distilleries sell more bottles, and let them all sell on Sunday. It seems like some of this ought to be an easy Yes for Abbott, so I’m kind of puzzled why he’s not taken any action to help these folks. Whatever the reason, I hope they get some help before it’s too late.

RIP, HB602

Dammit.

Texans won’t be buying liquor on Sunday and the state’s 29 brewpubs won’t be competing with their out-of-state rivals on local grocery shelves.

And Texas breweries or liquor distillers still can’t sell a 12-pack of beer or a souvenir bottle of bourbon to tourists, as the Legislature has killed all bills related to changes in state laws on beer and liquor retailing.

“We got railroaded,” said Dan Garrison with Garrison Brothers Distillery, a Hill Country distiller who wanted the ability to sell a souvenir bottle of his bourbon to tour groups.

Garrison’s comment could sum up the frustration of the smallest players in the state’s beer and liquor industry that is controlled by giants.

Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, chairs the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures, where most of the alcohol-related bills died this session.

He said it’s difficult to change decades-old laws without affecting someone’s financial interest.

Translation: It’s difficult to give small brewers and distillers an even break because doing so might put a tiny dent in the massive, oligarchic profits of the big distributors.

Most attempts to change beer or liquor laws eventually bump up against the state’s post-Prohibition rules that maintain distinct boundaries between manufacturers, distributors and retailers, in what is commonly called the three-tiered system.

House Bill 660 would have allowed brewpub owners to sell their beer through distributors at retail outlets. The brewpubs said they would expand and create jobs.

The Beer Alliance of Texas and the Licensed Beverage Distributors supported the bill, while the rival Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas opposed it. That was enough to kill it in Hamilton’s committee.

Likewise, Rep. Jessica Farrar’s House Bill 602, which would have allowed microbreweries to sell 12-packs of beer to tour groups, fell victim to competition between two distributor groups.

And once again, the deciding factor in this debate is what’s good for the distributors, and not for the customers. The customers always lose. On the one hand, legislation to allow microbreweries to sell their product onsite made it farther than it had before, and given the way the Lege works you have to hope that this represents progress. On the other hand, to come this far and see it fall just short is that much more wrenching because you could see the finish line. I’m sure I’ll feel hopeful again in time for the next session, but for now I’m just pissed off. Lee Nichols has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Saint Arnold Brewing Co. founder Brock Wagner, one of the driving forces behind this and two previous legislative efforts, said he was “annoyed” at the continued failure to pass a bill that had no other organized opposition.

“We just got outgunned,” he said.

“The laws in Texas need to be changed,” he said. “Right now, the laws in Texas are biased against in-state craft breweries. It makes no sense.”

I couldn’t agree more.