North Carolina has always had a peculiar relationship with alcohol. Despite being known as the home of American wine before Prohibition, the state beat the nation to the punch by nearly a decade, outlawing alcohol in 1909. In the 1920s, North Carolina’s Prohibition chief declared that the Tar Heel State led the nation in illicit distilleries. Yet even though the 21st Amendment ended that nationwide experiment in 1933, North Carolina refused to accept the change until 1935, when the governor finally realized how much local money was being lost to South Carolina and Virginia.
Attorney Derek Allen, who represents many Asheville breweries, says, “We’re operating with these rules that were written post-Prohibition to make buying and consuming alcohol as difficult as possible. It’s just crazy to me!”
Asheville’s craft cocktail boom began in 2012 with the opening of The Magnetic Field and The Junction, following in the wake of pioneers like Sazerac and the Joli Rouge. By 2013, other venues, including newcomers MG Road and The Imperial Life, were launching award-winning cocktail programs. But have our alcohol laws kept pace?
Donnie Pratt and Jasper Adams have been instrumental in developing the local cocktail scene. Adams started out at Sazerac and now heads up the bar program at The Imperial Life. Pratt, one of the minds behind The Blind Pig Supper Club, began his career at The Magnetic Field, honing his craft cocktail chops under the tutelage of New Orleans transplant Cynthia Turner. He later helped open Wxyz at the Aloft hotel before taking over Cucina 24’s bar program.
“When I go to the liquor store to get the product, or when I make a cocktail and want to prepare it in a certain way, by putting it in a keg or a bottle, I shouldn’t be made to feel like I’m doing something wrong,” says Adams. “As I’ve told my parents since I was a kid, if I’m doing something wrong, punish me. If I’m not, and you’re just annoyed or frustrated or worried, tell me that and let’s talk about it, but why should I be punished for it?”
Both men are unhappy with the Alcoholic Beverage Control system and the legal restrictions on serving mixed beverages. “When we go to other cities and tell them about our alcohol laws, they laugh. The last major revision to our liquor laws was in 1983, and that’s crazy,” says Adams.
For cocktail bars, having a large selection of rare and specialty liquors is the name of the game, but state law makes it difficult. Before 2013, specialty liquors had to be purchased by the case, which really ran up the tab. A bottle of Chartreuse, for example, costs just over $59 at the ABC store. In addition to the regular sales tax, however, bars have to pay a $3.75 mixed beverage tax. And until last year, they were forced to shell out for 11 more bottles of Chartreuse, and the accompanying taxes, in order to get the one bottle they might actually need for the next three months.
But in May 2013 the commission created a boutique list of about 50 specialty items that bars could order in three-bottle cases, to encourage more ABC stores to stock those particular products. Representatives of regional ABC boards did not respond to requests for comment.
“I would even go further than Jasper and say that regular availability of products is the problem,” notes Pratt. “I shouldn’t have to wonder when’s the next time Batavia Arrack will come in, when I’ve ordered it off the boutique list and asked them for it a dozen times. And sure, arrack isn’t something people order all the time, but I do know for a fact that the distributor has other products that come in regularly. With the boutique list, they jerry-rigged the system for us. And it kind of worked for a while, but we’ve grown to the limits of that, and now we want an actual fix.”
Adams, meanwhile, says, “What we have right now is a system where we aren’t placing orders: We’re just making requests.” And with a state-run retail store that has a monopoly on liquor sales, he continues, that just doesn’t work.
But obtaining these spirits is only the beginning: To be successful, bartenders must do something interesting with them. Many will barrel-age cocktails to impart the oak flavor; some will carbonate and bottle them or serve them from a keg. State law, though, harks back to a very different era. Ingredients, for instance, can’t be stored or infused in Mason jars, because when that law was written in the 1940s, moonshiners were still selling illegally to bars in competition with the state-run distribution system.
“I think the people in charge, whether it’s the lawmakers or the people on the actual ABC board, feel like we don’t want to pay the taxes, or we don’t want there to be a state board — that all we want is for the system to be privatized,” says Adams. “I don’t care if it’s privatized or not; I just want to be able to get the product I ordered in a timely manner and not deal with a huge hassle. I don’t even mind having to pay higher taxes, but I shouldn’t have to deal with that and not be able to get what I ordered, and then have them regulate how I use it. It’s just insanely restrictive.”
“The way I look at it,” he continues, “We’re no longer a dry state: We approved liquor sales long ago. So if we’re worried about malfeasance, and we’re worried about people going crazy and doing stupid s**t while they’re drinking, the problem is not having alcohol, or even a specific type of alcohol. … The problem is properly training people, whether they’re selling the bottles in retail or selling and making drinks, to deal with the product appropriately.”