Once-dry counties around Chattanooga wet their whistles

Once-dry counties around Chattanooga wet their whistles

December 9th, 2012 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Stephen Waldron checks the shelves Wednesday at Hillbilly's Liquor in Dunlap, Tenn. Voters in Tennessee and North Georgia have relaxed their attitudes about legal alcohol sales in recent years, adopting package sales and liquor by the drink in restaurants and bars.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should alcohol be sold on Sundays?

Jack Daniel's quietly rolled out a $10 whiskey-tasting tour at its distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., in February, and the George Dickel Distillery in nearby Tullahoma has a new tasting room that's due to open sometime after Jan. 1.

Connie Prichard believes the two big boys of Tennessee distilling are following the lead she and her husband, Phil Prichard, set five years ago when they started offering free quarter-ounce sips of whiskey and rum at their craft operation, Prichard's Distillery in Kelso, Tenn.

"We were the first distillery in the state to do tastings," she said. "You always could do them, it's just George and Jack chose not to."

Thanks to legislation signed in 2009 by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen that opened up whiskey-making to more than 40 counties, Tennessee has about a dozen small craft distilleries offering spirits tastings, the most popular of which is Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Visitors there enjoy "free moonshine tasting" from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. except on Sundays and holidays.

The trendiness of Tennessee whiskey tasting is just one example of restrictive Southern liquor laws slowly melting away like an ice cube in a tumbler of Jack and Coke.

Tennessee lawmakers may let grocery stores start selling wine.

An effort is under way to allow whiskey distilling in Hamilton County.

Southeastern Tennessee voters have OK'd liquor by the drink and allowed package stores in formerly dry counties.

Georgia voters in a growing number of communities have approved Sunday package and by-the-drink sales of beer, wine and spirits.

Reasons for relaxing the "blue laws" range from changes in attitude to a desire to boost revenue.

Revenue the "bottom line"

Athens, Tenn., approved liquor by the drink more than a decade ago after election referendums failed repeatedly in the 1990s. The change made Athens temporarily unique along the stretch of Interstate 75 between Chattanooga and Knoxville, said Jack Hammontree, vice president of the McMinn County Economic Development Authority.

"Chattanooga and Knoxville were getting a lot of business from people traveling out of town to go have dinner or lunch and being able to order an alcoholic beverage at those restaurants," Hammontree said. "Athens wanted to keep pace."

By 2000, local folks recognized benefits in keeping money from alcohol sales and the sales tax revenue they generate in the local economy and said so with their ballots, he said.

Officials hoped legal liquor by the drink in Athens would attract large chain restaurants like Ruby Tuesday and O'Charley's, adding variety to the local menu.

"That's still probably the argument for most of these communities, not necessarily all of them," he said.

Hammontree said attracting restaurants that serve alcohol now is a lower priority for some communities because of the economic downturn and because so many towns have approved liquor sales, reducing the uniqueness of going wet.

Hammontree anticipates a possible rebound when the recession peters out.

Voters in Pikeville, Tenn., passed referendums in November for liquor by the drink and package store sales, though the move is more to offer options for existing local restaurants and to keep revenues from package sales at home, Mayor Philip Cagle said.

"Revenue is the bottom line," Cagle said.

Pikeville residents recognized that the city and Bledsoe County were losing revenue to neighboring counties, which all have legal liquor sales by the drink, package sales or both, he said.

He said he thought voters decided that "if people are going to buy it, at least let's get some revenue from it," he said.

The Catoosa County, Ga., Board of Commissioners and the Ringgold, Ga., City Council each voted to put Sunday sales before voters, who approved the measures Nov. 6 by a comfortable margin.

Like officials in Athens and Pikeville, Catoosa's commissioners put the question on the ballot in hopes of generating revenue by attracting eateries.

"That's one thing that's kept a lot of upscale restaurants from coming to Catoosa County," Keith Greene said on election night. "We've had restaurants saying that they are willing to come, and what was holding them back was alcohol sales."

No one "going dry"

Georgia voters overwhelmingly favor Sunday sales, said Ben Jenkins, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization that represents distillers.

In the first wave of local option elections that took place in Georgia in November 2011, voters in 127 communities had the opportunity to OK Sunday sales, Jenkins said, and 105 measures passed.

"That's an 83 percent success rate for Sunday sales," he said. "The trend is obviously cities steadily voting in favor of Sunday sales, modernizing these outdated blue laws."

Demand is strong in Dunlap, Tenn., where liquor referendums were approved in 2008. Hillbilly's Liquor store owner Stephen Waldron says his inventory has tripled since he opened in December 2009.

"It's growing every year," Waldron said. "We've had 15 to 20 percent growth from last year."

He says towns are going wet to keep money in the community and to reap the benefits from sales to people who will buy elsewhere if they can't get it at home.

Local government recognizes the gains, too.

"I think places are going wet to recoup some of the money," he said. "For every dollar I sell in liquor, the city of Dunlap gets 8 cents."

Dry counties haven't disappeared. While visitors to Jack Daniel's can taste whiskey and buy commemorative bottles at the Lynchburg distillery, the world-famous beverage isn't available at stores and restaurants in Moore County. It's one of hundreds of dry counties around the country, mainly concentrated in the South.

Still, while some communities may not go wet, Jenkins said, "I've never seen a town or county wanting to go dry. They may not pass the [wet law], but it's never to go dry."

Concerned churches

Not everyone's happy about the way things are headed.

Voters in the tourist destination of Pigeon Forge, Tenn. -- home of Dolly Parton's amusement park, Dollywood -- approved a liquor-by-the-drink referendum by 100 votes on Nov. 6.

Similar mesures had failed in 2009 and 2011.

A group called Forging Ahead campaigned for liquor by the drink, and its website included a "here's the math" section that said last year liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue generated nothing for Pigeon Forge schools compared to other schools in Sevier County. Forging Ahead says $453,825 went to Gatlinburg schools and $105,929 was doled out to Sevierville schools.

"It's giving everyone the choice," said Forging Ahead member Ken Maples, co-owner of the Comfort Inn & Suites in Pigeon Forge. "If they want to have a drink with dinner in Pigeon Forge, now they can do that."

Opponents haven't given up.

Concerned Churches & Citizens of Pigeon Forge filed a lawsuit Nov. 21 in Sevier County Chancery Court contending that county residents were allowed to vote who shouldn't have been while city voters were excluded.

Sunday alcohol bans date to the 1700s when Puritans enacted various blue laws to restrict activity on the sabbath.

Kelly Baker, a religious studies lecturer at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, doesn't think the trend to relax blue laws means people are less religious.

"I don't think that means Tennessee and Georgia are becoming more secular," she said. "They're just not quite as religious in that Protestant mode that was so dominant."

Economics is driving the shift.

"I think commerce has been what's really shifted," Baker said. Her hometown of Marianna, Fla., went from dry to wet after arguments were made it would be good for businesses there.

When Phil Prichard opened his Kelso, Tenn.-distillery in 1997, ministers from nearby Fayetteville, Tenn., made their displeasure known, Connie Prichard said.

"He had a couple ministers who called on him. They were so upset that they had a distillery in Lincoln County," she said.

"But now, I think things have loosened up."