published Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Chattanooga Whiskey letter looking for signatures


by Cliff Hightower

WHAT'S NEXT

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry hopes to present the letter of recommendation for distilled spirits, with signatures from at least six of the nine county commissioners, to the Hamilton County legislative delegation by Dec. 13. If not enough commissioners have signed by then, the commission could give the letter to the delegation by the time the Tennessee General Assembly convenes in the second week of January.

An Indiana-made liquor that bears Chattanooga's name is getting a tiny bit closer to becoming a home brew.

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said Wednesday he has drafted a letter recommending that spirits be distilled in Hamilton County. So far, five of the nine commissioners have signed the letter.

"Personally, to me, I wouldn't want it," said Henry, who signed the letter. "But the days of Prohibition are over and there's liquor by the drink in the county."

Along with Henry, commissioners Greg Beck, Joe Graham, Marty Haynes and Warren Mackey have signed the letter.

Commissioners Fred Skillern, Jim Fields, Chester Bankston and Tim Boyd have not signed the letter yet. Bankston and Boyd said they would not sign the letter.

Joe Ledbetter, founder of Chattanooga Whiskey Co., has helped lead efforts to get distilling going again in Hamilton County, which was home to almost 30 distilleries before they were shut down in 1915.

More than 100 people crowded into the County Commission chambers last week when Ledbetter made a presentation in support of whisky being distilled in Hamilton County.

A 2009 bill in the Tennessee General Assembly allowed some counties to decide whether to permit distilleries, but Hamilton County was left out of that bill.

The letter asks that Hamilton be added to the roster of counties with authority to decide for themselves whether to allow distilleries.

Henry said he hopes a majority of commissioners would sign by Dec. 13 when the commission meets with the Hamilton County's state lawmakers.

Ledbetter said Wednesday he hopes for a signed letter by next week.

"We're just anxiously waiting from the commission," he said.

But there could be problems even if the commission gets a majority of signatures.

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said the delegation commonly wants a resolution asking for changes in laws to secure unanimous approval from governmental bodies

Watson said a simple letter gives the impression that the governmental body isn't entirely serious.

"It doesn't carry as much weight as a unanimous vote," he said.

The lack of a public referendum on distilleries also weakens the request, Watson said, and could mean the request gets put on the backburner.

Graham said even if a bill gets through the Legislature, it would be up to the county whether and how to permit distilleries.

"Our question is whether there should be a referendum or whether it takes this body as a whole to pass it through," he said.

He said the county could seek an attorney general's opinion.

Henry said he wanted to have the people vote on it even if it meant waiting until the next election in 2014.

"I'd prefer it go to a referendum," he said.

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