Not Stirred: New ABC Reforms to Shake Up Alcohol Sales in NC

Aug 27, 2019

Starting Sunday, North Carolina will loosen the collar of some of its strict alcohol regulations. 

While it’s being cheers-ed by alcohol sellers and consumers alike -- some say the changes don’t go far enough. 

The ABC Regulatory Reform Act is a sweeping measure that’s being heralded as a “modernization” that strips away some arbitrary rules and regulations.

One change that gives Asheville beer connoisseurs something to smile about is patrons at a brewery can now purchase two beers at a time. 

Western Carolina University political analyst Dr. Chris Cooper says the changes are a rare moment of bipartisanship in state politics.

“Where the Democrats and Republicans have been able to come together and agree," Cooper said. "They may have different reasons, but ultimately both of them seem to want us to be able to go to a bar and have me buy myself a beer and buy one for you.”

Cooper says the changes show how the libertarian, free market wing of the GOP seems to have more influence than the socially conservative, religious side which favors tighter limits on alcohol. He calls it a move that favors economic development. 

“I also think frankly, a lot of people drink. A lot of people who don’t drink know somebody who does, and so, I think it’s the kind of thing that does affect people whether they’re churched or not churched,” Cooper said. 

But, even with the changes, North Carolina is still comparatively more restrictive than most states. 

“The ABC system has the monopoly of distilled spirit sales in the state of North Carolina. They’ve got a monopoly on the market," Tim Ferris, founder and CEO of Blue Ridge Distilling Company that makes Defiant whiskey, said.

Ferris says the reforms don’t go far enough. For instance, distilleries can’t sell their products through online retailers. 

“How can that not be beneficial to the state of North Carolina from just a tax revenue basis, let alone increasing what’s becoming a flourishing industry in the state?,” Ferris said. 

The Senate bill does have several provisions aimed at boosting sales at local distilleries. It does away with a cap of five bottles that visitors to distilleries can purchase per year. Distilleries are also now able to also sell cocktails on site with a permit. But Ferris says ABC still controls the prices of spirits -- so distillers can’t offer discounts or promotions -- because that would compete with the ABC stores. 

“Well how many advantages do you need? You’ve already got a corner on the market. We’re not talking about volumes of sales that would affect them grossly, and if we’re already hindered in our ability to sell,it’s just across the board once you get into it, it’s kind of nauseating.”

Another local distiller, Oak & Grist in Black Mountain, says it’s a challenge keeping tabs on stock at all of the ABC stores. There are currently 170 different ABC boards across the state, and some are friendlier to local distillers than others. 

Mark Combs is the general manager of Asheville's ABC Board. He says compared to others across the state, the Asheville board is more open to changes, like allowing for Sunday spirits sales. But that proposal was slashed in early discussions on the proposed legislation. 

Do local distillers see the Asheville board as an ally?

“Boy that’s a tough question to answer," Combs said. "In a holistic way, in a community way, I think they do see us as partners. We feature their liquors in our stores. A lot of times we’ll double shelve them, meaning we’ll put a gin in the gin section and then we’ll put that same gin in the North Carolina selection. We really want to be neighborly.”

Combs says the Asheville board pushed for in-store tastings long before the current measure was proposed. But he adds when it comes to alcohol, the state of North Carolina is still predominantly conservative and slow to change -- like whiskey aging in a barrel.