Visiting a craft brewery and visiting a craft distillery in North Carolina are vastly different experiences, but that could change this year.

Craft breweries have become community gathering places where people can hang out for hours while sampling unique local beers. The clientele usually avoids drunken misbehavior.

Because they’re producing liquor, craft distilleries face much more stringent regulations. They can only offer quarter-ounce samples of straight liquor to people who take a tour. That means there’s little reason to hang out at the facility, and if you’d prefer to sample their products in a cocktail, you’re out of luck. You’ll have to buy a bottle and make one yourself at home -- and you can only buy up to five bottles per year at the distillery.

State legislators are working to change that. Senate Bill 290, which is moving in the Senate this month, would let distillers play by similar rules as their beer and wine counterparts. They’d be able to serve cocktails to their visitors and sell a larger number of bottles on-site. The bill also removes some hurdles in the ABC system that can make it difficult for distillers to get their beverages in bars and restaurants.

The legislation is a game-changer for the craft distillery business and is expected to increase the number of these operations if it passes. North Carolina has already gone from 27 distilleries in 2015 to nearly 80 in 2019, partly due to previous law changes. North Carolina has 300 breweries and brewpubs.

Like breweries and wineries, many distilleries are in small, rural communities where they can help draw visitors.

For example, the tiny Burke County town of Rutherford College is hardly a tourism mecca, but it’s likely that people who come to learn about rum, whiskey and moonshine at South Mountain Distilling Co. will eat at the barbecue joint down the street. And in the Cabarrus County town of Mount Pleasant, Southern Grace Distilleries has repurposed an old state prison as the “Whiskey Prison.”

Less obvious is the distilleries’ positive impact on North Carolina agriculture. Pete Barger of Southern Distilling Co. in Statesville told lawmakers that he uses thousands of pounds of grain from local farms in each shift producing whiskey. The spent grain from the process then goes back to the farm to feed cattle. Barger estimates his business indirectly supports employment of three times the number of people who actually work in the distillery.

The distillery bill is getting pushback from conservative religious groups like the Christian Action League. They’re worried that by allowing more liquor sales at distilleries, state leaders are taking a step toward privatizing the ABC system, allowing liquor sales without going through a government-run agency.

Some of the lawmakers who sponsored the distillery bill are indeed pursuing privatization. Restaurant and retail lobbying groups have launched a “Free the Spirits” campaign in support. That measure is less likely to pass this year, and the distilleries aren’t looking to fight the ABC stores that sell their products.

The latest version of the distillery bill is seen as a compromise between liquor producers and the N.C. Association of ABC Stores, which aren’t opposing it. That gives it smoother sailing in the legislature, and no one on a Senate committee that recently reviewed it voiced any objections.

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