Craft distilleries see signals that legislature will allow expansion

Pending legislation could allow unsavory bar owners to essentially become “nationwide liquor stores”, if a new craft distillery bill (HB 583) becomes law, Wine and Spirits Distributors of Florida president Scott Ashley, testified before the Business & Professions Subcommittee last Wednesday.

However, if Howey-in-the-Hills State Republican Representative Anthony Sabatini has his way, craft distillers like “St Augustine Distillery” and its co-founders, Philip McDaniel and Mike Diaz, will enjoy greater freedoms and will expand the so called “moonshine industry” within the state.  Last Session, the House passed Sabatini’s similar distillery bill (HB 1219) 71-to-41, but the bill never made it through a Senate committee.

“There’ll be clever bar owners out there that will want to put a still on their bar and not make anything — because the Bill doesn’t actually mandate making anything,” Ashley said. “The Bill is vague enough that it will allow you to ship other brands that you have purchased to locations outside the state.”

The existing six-bottle-per-person sales limit for craft distillers will be eliminated if the new Bill becomes law. The bill would also more than triple the current annual production cap to 250,000 gallons-per-year for those spirit distillers.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Representative Wengay Newton, feared the provisions of HB538 could let distillers ship their beverages out of state.  Democratic Representative Matt Willhite pointed out that state law still prevents outside distillers from shipping to Florida.  Willhite had concern that if signed into law, those provisions may be in violation of the interstate commerce clause of the US Constitution.

In another concern expressed by Willhite, despite assurances from Sabatini that distillery gift shops will only sell beverages produced by their brand, Willhite observed that the Bill does not require that, and it should.

HB 538 passed the panel 8-to-5.  The Bill must now make a stop in the Government Operations & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee before heading to the commerce panel.  The panel unanimously advanced, without debate, a separate bill (HB 6037) to remove size restrictions on wine containers. Two more craft distillery bills (SB 138 and SB 482), by Senator Travis Hutson and Senator Jeff Brandes, await their first hearings.