Loni Hancock Carries Craft Liquor Law

A new bill by Senator Hancock would overturn a Prohibition-era law that forbids craft distillers from selling their wares directly on site.

Jörg Rupf has a problem: The craft vodkas and whiskeys he creates at St. George Spirits in Alameda must travel 100 miles before they can be sold at the store that sits ten feet from his warehouse. The aged liquor laws that require those long, strange trips not only make it tough for St. George’s to turn a profit, Rupf believes, but they are also stunting the growth of what could be a burgeoning craft-distilling industry.

But Rupf’s hoping that a bill recently introduced by State Senator Loni Hancock of Berkeley could change that. The bill, SB 1068, would allow St. George and a handful of other craft distillers to sell their wares directly on their premises. “We see this bill as very important for the development of the small artisan distilling movement,” Rupf said.

The bill was scheduled to get its first hearing before a state Senate committee this week. St. George and Alameda City Councilman Frank Matarrese are on record supporting it. And as of earlier this week, no one was officially opposed to the bill. The Alameda City Council voted last week to support it.

State law allows brewers and winemakers like St. George’s neighbor, Rock Wall Wine Company, to sell their wares on-premises. But craft distillers like Rupf — distillers that make 50,000 gallons of spirits or less — are barred from selling everything but brandy products directly on-site by laws that have been on the books since the end of Prohibition.

For the store at St. George’s to sell the distiller’s products — a store operated not by St. George but a company that leases space there — the distiller’s distributor must load it onto a truck and drive it to a warehouse in Morgan Hill, unload it, sell it to the store, load it back on the truck, and bring it back to Alameda Point.

The process makes it hard for St. George and other small distillers like it to make money. Rupf said that he might charge his distributor $10 a bottle for his vodka — a bottle that ultimately gets sold to shoppers by someone else for $21 or $22 a bottle. Those economics have scared a lot of potential distillers from getting into the business, he said. Just 22 craft distillers exist in California. The system “does nothing but make our product expensive and cut into our ability to make money off of it,” Rupf said.

Hancock is not unfamiliar with the state’s aged liquor laws. Her husband, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, carried a bill when he was in the Assembly nearly three decades ago that legalized brewpubs. The law has been credited with helping establish the craft brewing movement. “The level of quality of beer now is incomparably better than it was before,” Rupf said. “The same principle applies to craft distilling.”

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