Mere minutes before the end of the General Assembly’s 2017 regular session on May 11, lawmakers offered something of a toast to the state’s growing craft distillers.
House lawmakers voted 70 to 27 to let distilleries use mixers in their tasting rooms to create cocktails that highlight their spirits. And lawmakers raised the amount of spirits a patron can consume in a day from 1.5 ounces, the equivalent of a healthy shot, to 3 ounces, which is two or three cocktails.
“There’s a big difference between sipping a shot of bourbon and having an Old-Fashioned,” said Brook Bristow, a beverage lawyer on John’s Island. “Now you can showcase these types of products in a medium where they are most often consumed.”
But that doesn’t mean your friendly neighborhood distiller is going to turn into a rowdy neighborhood bar. Distilleries still have to close at 7 p.m. And the overwhelming majority of their customers are still tourists looking for a little local flavor rather than a hot time in the old town at night.
“In order to sample anything in our tasting room, you have to take a tour,” said Richard Baker, owner of Copper Horse Distilling in Columbia. “But now we’re adding a mixed drink at the end of a tour as the sample.”
Before, patrons had to sample Copper Horse’s gin, vodka and specialty spirits in three half-ounce shots. That wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences for many.
“We could suggest what our spirits would be good in, but they would have to take our word for it,” said Phil Crouch of Crouch Distilling in Columbia. “Now we can find ways to highlight our product.”
The bill passed last month also nixed a regulation that limited distillers to selling 750-milliliter bottles for off-premise consumption – generally what is known in non-metric terms as a “fifth.” Although they still can only sell the equivalent of three 750 milliliter bottles to one person per day, they can now sell smaller bottles as well – be it mini-bottles or pints.
Bristow predicted the smaller bottles would mean more sales for the distilleries.
“These distilleries are almost entirely tourist based,” he said. “And very few people want to jump on an airplane with a 750 (milliliter bottle) in their bag.”
Basing the businesses almost entirely on tourists is fine with Scott Blackwell, owner of High Wire distillery on King Street in Charleston and president of the new S.C. Craft Distillers Guild.
“My wife and I don’t want to run a bar,” said Blackwell, who was nominated this year for a James Beard Award, the nation’s most prestigious award for food and drink.
“We get lots of tourists dropping in,” he said. “You can’t just eat and look at old houses all day.”
Blackwell added that craft distilleries aren’t “holes in the wall making cheap booze.” He noted that he has invested “several million” dollars into his operation in the heart of Charleston’s tourist district.
Like craft brewers and many modern restaurateurs, particularly in food-crazy South Carolina, craft distillers are evangelical about what goes into their spirits.
For instance, Copper Horse advertises “small-batch, distilled spirits made exclusively from local grains milled at the historic Allen Brothers mill, home of Adluh Flour. Located in Downtown Columbia, South Carolina, we strive to create quality products that reflect the ideals and traditions of the South.”
The mill is about three blocks away from Copper Horse in downtown Columbia.
“Liquor has always had a little bit of a stigma about it,” Blackwell said. “It’s coming out of a time when spirits were thought of as ‘the hard stuff.’ One of our goals is to educate the public that nothing any of us makes is cheap booze. And we are working with a lot of South Carolina agriculture.”
The craft distilling industry in South Carolina began in 2009 when the state dropped the cost of a license from $50,000 to $2,500. It marked the end of an odd dance between the Palmetto State and legalized liquor.
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, bars and restaurants in South Carolina couldn’t serve liquor. In 1973, the state law was changed to allow them to serve liquor, but only in mini-bottles. After Utah dropped its mini-bottle law in 1990, South Carolina was the only state in the country to use them, until allowing “free pour” in 2005.
Since 2009, craft distilleries in the state have skyrocketed to 34, most in tourist-rich Charleston. With the new tweaks, and perhaps more in the future, distillers could mirror the success of craft breweries, which since the pint law passed in 2013 are packed with locals, eating, drinking, playing corn hole and generally hanging out.
Partnerships between distilleries and craft breweries are already starting. In a companion bill, lawmakers last month allowed breweries to sell liquor along with their craft brews, opening up broad avenues for collaboration.
“It’s a natural partnership,” Blackwell said.
The next step, he said, would be to lobby for expanded hours, maybe to 9 p.m., and to be able to open on Sundays, which is a prime day for tourists.
“That way people could experience more of what we do,” Blackwell said, “and we could become more a part of the community.”
Columbia Craft Distilleries
Copper Horse Distilling
929 Huger St.
947 S. Stadium Road, Bay #3
4884 Sunset Blvd., Lexington