A proposal to increase the volume of spirits that distilleries in Montana can serve to their customers drew support from liquor producers seeking parity in a business climate they say unfairly restricts their growth.
Introduced by Rep. Jim Hamilton, R-Bozeman, House Bill 362 would allow distilleries to serve customers four ounces of spirits for on-premise consumption, whereas current law caps the volume at two ounces.
“This is another bill that asks you to move a small bit toward a future that embraces change as opposed to embracing the status quo or clinging to it,” Hamilton said Feb. 13 when the bill went before the House Business and Labor Committee. “It asks you to acknowledge that as existing business people or a new business person, we need to adapt what consumers are seeking.”
A week prior, the same committee tabled a bill that would have allowed craft breweries to extend their hours of operation from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Jazper Torres, who owns Vilya Spirits in downtown Kalispell with his wife, Amanda Torres, said allowing his business to serve more alcohol could make the difference in his decision to remain at the prominent downtown location or move elsewhere.
“For us personally, we have been making our spirits for almost 10 years. We started out in the woods west of Kalispell, but we wanted to bring this cool thing we were doing and the craft cocktails we were creating into the revived downtown community,” Jazper Torres said. “We feel good about that, but we’re paying so much for this space and we’re limited to being able to only serve two ounces. That’s a big thing for us.”
He said if the measure passed, the couple would consider using their leased space’s kitchen and offer food; however, the two-ounce limit on alcohol makes it difficult to keep customers through an entire meal.
Still, Torres predicted the bill would meet the same fate as the brewery bill, particularly given the opposition from the Montana Restaurant Association, the Liquor Store Owners Association of Montana and Montana Tavern Association, who lined up against Hamilton’s bill.
Mark Lewis of Montana Spirits and Wine in Bozeman said the bill picks “winners and losers,” particularly given a current statute that allows distilleries to serve drinks at lower prices than bars and restaurants.
“We want them to be successful. But at the same time, just like them, I struggle to make payroll on Fridays,” Lewis said.
Torres said he’s optimistic that regulatory caps on distilleries will eventually become more equitable, including a law requiring microdistilleries to close at 8 p.m.
“I tried to be hopeful. People bring it up in the tasting room every day,” he said of the statute governing hours of operation. “People like craft. Local is the new organic. But when you have a strong lobbying presence in the Legislature, people’s voices might not always be heard. It causes confusion when there’s all these different laws.”
“There just needs to be a more even playing field for everyone,” he added. “A move toward consistency or a move toward parity across the board would make that more consistent. Allowing us to serve four ounces is a step in the right direction, but even what we are asking for now doesn’t solve everything.”
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