S.C. distillers lobby for cocktails in tasting rooms

If the S.C. legislature signs off on it, Santa Claus (aka chef Robert Dickson) could have whiskey in his egg nog when drinking in the High Wire Distilling Co. tasting room. Dickson attended this Christmas sampling session with Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall, the distillery's co-owners. Grace Beahm/Staff

South Carolina distillers are pushing the state legislature to take up a bill that would allow spirits producers to serve mixed drinks in their tasting rooms.

The house bill, sponsored by representatives James Merrill, Peter McCoy, Garry Smith and Leon Stavrinakis, proposes tripling the amount of liquor a distiller can dispense to an individual. If he was permitted to pour 4.5 ounces per person, High Wire Distilling Co.’s Scott Blackwell says he could present vodka and gin in their proper context.

“It would add the ability to experience spirits in the way you normally would,” Blackwell says. “Gin is not usually consumed straight: People who want to drink those clear spirits want to drink them in a format that’s a little bit more friendly.”

Under the bill, most of the rules governing tasting room policies would remain the same, including a prohibition on customers participating in multiple tastings or purchasing more than 2.25 liters of liquor a day. Distillers would also be barred from using other producers’ spirits in their cocktails, which in the case of High Wire, means no Hat Trick negronis.

Still, Blackwell stresses that the state’s 23 distillers don’t want to turn their tasting rooms into bars. He just believes customers would be more likely to return to his distillery if its sampling menu incorporated cocktails.

“Right now, we see people usually one time: There’s not a lot of reason to come back,” he says, adding that tourists account for 92 percent of his distillery’s traffic. He envisions drawing more locals with a changing lineup of cocktails, perhaps made with Charleston products such as Bittermilk mixers, which High Wire already carries.

“We get people in all the time wanting to taste the mixers, so it’s one of those things that would cross sell,” Blackwell says.

Another provision of the bill would abolish the law restricting the sale of liquor in tasting rooms to 750-mililiter bottles. In Blackwell’s case, that would pave the way for more easily retailing specialty spirits, which drinkers may consume by drops instead of ounces.

“Any liqueur, people don’t drink those on a daily basis,” Blackwell says. As an example, he cites High Wire’s heirloom watermelon brandy: Because the fruit’s yield was low, the distillery charged $80 for 750 milliliters of the spirit. If it was sold in smaller quantities, “it would open up the ability for people to buy it. It’s hard for people to pay $80 for watermelon brandy.”

Currently, 32 states allow distillers to prepare cocktails in their tasting rooms, the American Distilling Institute reports.

Since being introduced over a year ago, House Bill 3229 has languished in committee. But Charleston Distilling Co. owner Stephen Heilman, who has been instrumental in lobbying for its passage, is now trying to stir up legislative sentiment in the distillers’ favor.

Heilman refused to comment for this story, saying “I don’t feel comfortable talking to you,” before abruptly hanging up. According to Blackwell, though, S.C. distillers are making progress, and starting to unify as a political force.

“I think being that we’re a year later, we’re poised to push it through,” Blackwell says. “For such a small change, it has a pretty decent impact.”