House panel OKs whiskey-production bill

House panel OKs whiskey-production bill

March 7th, 2013 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Joe Ledbetter, left, and Tim Piersant are the founders of Chattanooga Whiskey Co.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Chattanooga Whiskey Co.'s effort to distill its product in its hometown finally flowed through a House panel Wednesday after lawmakers voted to let cities OK the operation of whiskey manufacturing.

State Government Subcommittee members approved it on a 4-1 vote, sending the measure on to full committee, despite the objections of Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga.

Floyd, who opposes alcohol generally, said that while he considers the bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lacassas, "my friend. We just happen to be on different ends of the spectrum on this bill."

The lawmaker said he specifically exempted Hamilton County from Carr's 2009 bill that allowed county commissions to approve whiskey distilling.

This year's bill amounts to "an end run from the legislation in 2009," Floyd said. "I was the person who took Hamilton County out of that bill."

The legislation would allow city elected officials to approve distilleries if city voters in previous referendums had approved both liquor by the drink and liquor package stores.

POLL: Should whiskey be manufactured in Hamilton County?

Most Hamilton County lawmakers back the bill.

Last week, the bill was delayed by another bill provision that affects an unrelated dispute in Gatlinburg.

That's assumed the ferocity of a 20th century moonshiners' war with businessman Ned Vickers, who is seeking to open a distillery in Gatlinburg, charging the owner of an existing distillery, Joe Baker of Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, joined city officials and unfairly shut him out through an ordinance.

The bill supercedes the ordinance, and Baker recently took out full-page ads in newspapers published in sucommittee members' districts charging that lobbyists in Nashville were trying to "sneak" a bill gutting local control through the Legislature.

That was a reference to one of Capitol Hill's preeminent lobbyists, David McMahan, who says he has a "minority" interest in Vickers' venture, Sugarlands.

McMahan, a lobbyist for liquor stores, also had been a lobbyist for Gatlinburg. He said when he realized there was a conflict, he raised it with city officials and they parted ways. He repaid the city his fee.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are irate over Baker's ads, saying they believed their integrity before constituents had been impugned.

Reps. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, charged the ads were "false," while Rep. Kent Williams, an independent from Elizabethton, complained they conveyed to his constituents that "I was trying to do something underhanded."

Baker said the ads were directed at lobbyists and eventually apologized to lawmakers if they believed the ads dragged them into the fracas.