Rebecca Creek Tasting Room at 281 and Bulverde Road. (Courtesy photo)
New law sure to make spirits soar
By Amanda Venable
For most of us, Sept. 1 was just an ordinary day, but for Texas distillers, it was triumphant. A new state law, Senate Bill 905, went into effect that day, and now they can sell their specially crafted brews on site.
Since the 1920s, Texas distillers were unable to sell liquor on their premises.
You might be thinking: Haven’t Texas wineries and breweries been pouring cups for years now? Texas distillers were asking the same question. And that’s where the story begins.
Mr. Mike Cameron of Rebecca Creek Distillery in San Antonio and a 20-member coalition called the Texas Distilled Spirits Association sought relief from laws that dated from the prohibition.
Their goal: to get rid of the old laws and craft a new set that would give consumers and economic growth top priority.
“There is power in numbers, and no one had challenged those laws in an organized fashion,” Mr. Cameron explained. “It had just never been done before.”
Mr. Cameron talks about his fellow board members as if they are teammates rather than competitors. And this team came to the game prepared with a shared four-plank manifesto. The distillers wanted the ability to:
- Sell bottled products and provide on-premise consumption at their distilleries.
- Purchase products in bulk from other Texas wineries, breweries, and distilleries for manufacturing purposes.
- Sell their products in bulk directly to food processors (think BBQ sauces, syrups and coffee liqueurs).
- Provide for a designated agent to promote their products, conduct samplings for consumers and take orders from wholesalers.
“We wanted to sell products out of our distilleries like wineries do,” Mr. Cameron said. “We wanted to it to be where people can come and have a cocktail and sit on the patio—like going to a winery, but just higher proof.”
To have a shot at changing the current laws, the distillers knew they would need a champion. Enter state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, no stranger to navigating Texas Alcohol and Beverage Code. She was instrumental in steering progressive reforms for Texas wineries 20 years ago.
Within a year, Sen. Van de Putte and the distillers managed to remove the inconsistencies in the old beverage code. Thanks to the new legislation, local artisanal distilleries can now sell consumers two bottles of liquor when they stop by a distillery for a visit or a tour.
“This was probably the most fun I had,” Sen. Van de Putte said of the legislative process. “I want to be sure these creative entrepreneurs in the distilling industry can create jobs and the type of products that the consumers are craving.”
One of those creative entrepreneurs is Mr. Mark McDavid of Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling in San Antonio, the first distillery inside city limits since the prohibition. Along with fellow co-founders Mr. Dennis Rylander and Mr. TJ Miller, Mr. McDavid explained they were “chomping at the bit” to get the legislation passed. Six hundred people attended a party at Ranger Creek the first Saturday after the law took effect.
“We sold a ton of whiskey that day to folks who came out in celebration of the law,” Mr. McDavid said.
Ranger Creek typically hosts 60 people who come to tour the distillery each Saturday — now half buy a bottle of Ranger Creek whiskey before leaving, Mr. McDavid said.
“It was really awkward prior to the law change,” he shared. “We give tours and have ever since we started in 2010. People have a lot of fun and learn a lot … they want to take something home to support you as a local business, and you have to tell them no.”
Mr. McDavid expects the spirit industry will grow along with the distillery tours. He’s not alone in that prediction. People who come to tour a distillery typically build a brand affinity, and that’s something that Mr. Trey Azar, co-owner of San Antonio’s Cinco Vodka, said makes the new laws a win-win: the consumer experiences something new and the distiller gets to work directly with their customers.
“When people come out to our facility and they see our copper kettle, it’s like they’re looking at a UFO. It’s so foreign to them,” Mr. Azar said. “The fact that they can now come check out distillers, see how the product is made and get a new experience, it’s a great thing.”
Mr. Azar, like his industry peers, is looking to Texas wineries for inspiration on how to implement on-site sales. Mr. Azar said Cinco Vodka has plans for events with live music, food and mixed beverages, adding that he would love to start scheduled tastings at some point.
The Texas wine industry contributed $1.83 billion to the state economy in 2011 and attracted 1.5 million wine-related tourists according to the most recent study done by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. If that’s any indication of what’s to come for the 48 distilleries in Texas today, there’s spirited growth ahead.
“Hopefully, we will be able to look back on this legislation forever and say this was a good year for the Texas distilled beverage industry all around,” Sen. Van de Putte said. “I’m looking forward to maybe a vodka salad dressing.”