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Tim Piersant, left, and Joe Ledbetter, owners of Chattanooga Whiskey, sit inside their whiskey truck at the new Southside Chattanooga distillery in the former Turnbull Cone Baking building at 1400 Fort St. The owners of Chattanooga Whiskey are waiting to see if a bill is passed to allow local production of the spirit.Photo by Dan Henry.
NASHVILLE — State House debate on a bill that would allow whiskey distilleries in previously excluded places like Chattanooga sometimes took on the nature of an old-time bar room brawl before finally passing Monday night.
After a nearly hour-long fight filled with attacks on the bill and sometimes on its sponsor, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lacassas, members approved the bill on a 57-31 vote.
That sends it back to the Senate, which previously passed the measure, to concur on changes in the overhaul of the 2009 landmark distillery bill.
Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, an alcohol opponent who excluded Hamilton County on the original bill, took the lead in attacks.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't have a lot of political capital to spend up here," Floyd said. "I recognize myself as a mule in the Kentucky Derby. And I certainly don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars of lobby money to try to persuade your vote."
That was an apparent allusion to Sugarlands, a distillery company seeking to set up business in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The company's minority investor is David McMahan, a lobbyist. An existing Gatlinburg distillery, Ole Smoky Moonshine, has fought the bill because it does away with the city's recently enacted 1,000-foot distance requirement on distilleries, which effectively excluded Sugarlands.
Changes in the law have been sought by Chattanooga Whiskey Co., owners of which want to manufacture whiskey in Chattanooga. The firm now gets its product from an Indiana distillery.
Floyd was criticized last week by Sugarlands' lead investor, who questioned Floyd's motivation, saying two amendments he had on the bill appeared to take Ole Smoky's side. The Chattanooga lawmaker struck back on the floor Monday night.
"Rep. Carr, can you tell us who brought you this bill?"
Carr replied the bill was "brought to my attention by members of the Hamilton County [legislative] delegation" who wanted the county in the bill. Hamilton County commissioners wrote a letter asking local lawmakers to bring the county in the bill.
He said the Senate sponsor of the 2009 law also spoke to him about changes and noted legislative legal staff said changes were needed in state alcohol law that "is not only contradictory and conflicts with itself on many occasions, in cases it's unconstitutional."
Floyd retorted that he didn't recall Carr speaking to him about Hamilton County. After Floyd posed the question again on where the bill came from, Carr said, "I already explained that."
Said Floyd: "I don't believe, and I respect you, but I don't believe we're getting all the answers right here to where this bill came from."
Floyd contended that Carr had spoken to him only about the Gatlinburg dispute.
He unsuccessfully sought to amend the bill to prevent on-site sales of whiskey or free samples offered on tours of whiskey distilleries on Sundays. That failed.
Floyd also pushed an amendment that would prevent distilleries from setting up within 500 feet of a church or a school, which also failed.
Carr said he was taking care of the distance issue, which he said inadvertently was left out of the recently passed Senate version of the legislation. Carr said that, under his version, distilleries could not set up within 2,000 feet of churches or schools unless local governments had their own less-stringent distance requirements linked to beer sales.
The bill would allow distilleries in any city where voters have previously approved a "double referendum" allowing both liquor by the drink and package store sales. That also applies to counties where a city has passed the referendums.
That brings Chattanooga under the proposed law, since it has passed both. It also brings in Hamilton County. The legislation has a provision allowing city officials and county officials to opt out and not allow distilleries within 45 days after the bill takes effect.
Upset over the attacks, Carr said Floyd and two other colleagues had basically called him a "liar."
"I was surprised at the vitriol and personal attacks leveled against me," said Carr, who has noted he doesn't drink alcohol himself and sees the legislation as a job-generating measure. "I told Rep. Floyd where I got the bill, and he refused to believe it. ... That's unfortunate that my colleagues, I thought my friends, would do that."
As the bill was moving through the House, Ole Smoky, which eventually hired two lobbyists, as well as a New York-based public relations firm, took out full-page ads in newspapers printed in the districts of members of a House subcommittee. The ads suggested something sleazy was going on.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...