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New bill expands tastings to craft distillers

  • HelloCello Limoncello di Sonoma and Prohibition Spirits' selection of Hooker's House Rye Whiskey, Hooker's House Bourbon, Sugar Daddy Amber Rum, and Solano Sonoma Mission Style Vodka No. 21, in Sonoma, Calif., on September 17, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

California's craft distillers would finally be allowed to offer guests tastes of their products under a bill passed by the state legislature in its final days.

"It's a step; at least we have a way now to let people to experience our product," said Fred Groth, founder and distiller at Prohibition Spirits and HelloCello in Sonoma, a leading voice for the change. "Hopefully that will give them enough (to say) 'Oh, that was really good. Maybe now I'll go out and buy it.'"

Wineries and breweries long have been allowed to let customers sample their products on site, and are even permitted to sell bottles or kegs directly to customers. Distillers, however, have lived under a confusing patchwork of regulations that meant in most cases they could not offer tastings or sell bottles directly.

HelloCello And Prohibition Spirits Distillery

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Makers of fruit-based brandies currently are allowed to sell their products at their production facilities but cannot offer tastings. Makers of other liquors, such as rum, whiskey and vodka, cannot sell bottles; some are allowed to offer free tastings, others are not allowed to offer tastings of any kind, depending on what type of license they hold from the state.

The new bill, which is awaiting the governor's signature, would go some way to make the rules more consistent, allowing all types of distillers to offer tastings for a fee. It caps sample pours at a quarter of an ounce and limits them to six per customer.

It will not, however, allow makers of non-brandy liquors to sell directly to the public, leading many distillers to call the bill a hollow victory.

"The only way for this world to make sense would be for me to be able to sell my own products," said Marko Karakasevic, master distiller at Domain Charbay in St. Helena and a board member of California Artisanal Distillers Guild.

Without the ability to sell his whiskeys, vodkas, and tequilas directly to the public, he said, there is no financial incentive to set up a tasting room at the company's distilling facility in Ukiah.

Distillers guild President Arthur Hartunian, founder of Napa Valley Distilling, admitted that the bill represents something less than a complete victory, but he said it was the best the industry could hope for in the face of opposition from distributors and liquor store owners, who worry that allowing direct sales at the distilleries would undermine their businesses.

Even the bill in its current limited form "will to a certain extent help to get craft distillers out to the public," he said.


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