As the final moments ticked by in the 2017 regular legislative session, a key bill backed by a slew of South Carolina distillers had yet to pass a final vote in the state House of Representatives. For Scott Blackwell, cofounder of High Wire Distilling Co. and president of the South Carolina Craft Distillers Guild, the proposed regulations would breathe new life into his distillery's King Street tasting room.
"We don't see many locals," says Blackwell, who pointed to the previous restrictions that prevented distilleries from serving mixed drinks and providing samples larger than 1.5 ounces as a major burden on bringing in business. "I mean, how many people are going to stop by for a tasting of straight gin?"
Then, with two minutes left to go before the end of the regular session on May 11, the bill passed by a vote of 70 to 27 in the House. Being ratified alongside two other major pieces of legislation reshaping alcohol laws in South Carolina, Blackwell calls the move a "baby step in the right direction." But for the breweries and distilleries scattered throughout the state, these new changes could prove to be just what the industry needs to continue flourishing in South Carolina.
Under the new regulations, signed into law May 19 by Gov. Henry McMaster, distilleries can serve up to 3 ounces of alcohol per person each day. Doubling the previous limit allowed, patrons can also now purchase mixed drinks and cocktails in local tasting rooms, which business owners expect to drive in more foot traffic from locals hoping to sample their products.
Speaking of products, micro-distilleries are now no longer limited in the size of a bottle of alcohol they must sell. The previous limit of 750-milliliter bottles has now been abandoned, although the overall amount of alcohol a single customer can purchase in a day is still capped at no more than the equivalent of three 750-milliliter bottles. For those concerned that these changes will transform your friendly neighborhood distillery into another new nightlife hot spot, these businesses are still required to close at 7 p.m. every day and remain closed on Sundays.
What can be expected is that local distilleries will roll out a few special offerings to highlight the strengths of their carefully crafted spirits. According to Blackwell, a custom-tailored cocktail menu incorporated with distillery tours and cocktail classes can't be too far behind the passage of the new law.
The new crop of laws passed in the final days of the 2017 legislative session also spelled good news for the local craft beer industry. Taking effect later this year, craft breweries will now be allowed to donate their products to charities for sale and on-site consumption at a nonprofit event. The new law also allows brewers to participate in nonprofit events by pouring samples and providing equipment for the events. Brewpubs are required to transfer any donated beer through a wholesaler and must handle paying the appropriate taxes.
In addition to the new law allowing charitable donations, state legislators have also enacted a law that will allow brewpubs in South Carolina to begin serving liquor to customers to enjoy inside their establishments.
Penned by state Sen. Sean Bennett and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, this newest batch of legislation easing restrictions on professional brewers and distillers in South Carolina continues a trend of local lawmakers loosening the reins on small businesses.
Perhaps one of most peculiar legacies related to South Carolina liquor laws is the rise and fall of the mini-bottle. For 32 years, bars in the Palmetto State could only serve liquor drinks under 2 ounces, which birthed the rise of the mini-bottle. A holdover from the Prohibition Era, bars and restaurants in South Carolina were forbidden from serving liquor until 1973 when an update to state laws finally allowed spirits to be served but only in 1.7-ounce bottles. And things would stay that way for quite a while here.
For around 15 years, South Carolina was the only state in the nation that held up its mini-bottle regulations. Utah dropped a similar law in 1990. Finally, the end of 2005 saw South Carolina follow suit and allow bartenders to serve drinks out of full-sized bottles, although a few local establishments still insist on mini-bottles if only for nostalgia purposes.
It's only been four years since craft brewers in South Carolina were first legally allowed to serve pints of their product to thirsty patrons. The following year saw the passage of the Stone Law, which enabled breweries to serve food. These lowered restrictions have coincided with a dramatic increase in entrepreneurs getting into the alcohol businesses. Currently, there are 41 licensed breweries operating across South Carolina — in addition to more than 30 distilleries.
"We've gone from being one of the worst states for craft beer to being one of the best," said Wesley Donehue of Frothy Beard Brewing in a statement regarding the newest shift in regulations governing brewers. "If this trend continues, South Carolina will be one of the best states on the east coast for craft beer. We'll bring in more tourists and create even more jobs. Let's continue the march forward."