Group seeks to put whiskey fight in voters' hands to bring whiskeymakers to Hamilton County

Group seeks to put whiskey fight in voters' hands to bring whiskeymakers to Hamilton County

March 26th, 2013 by Louie Brogdon in News

Chattanooga Whiskey Co. supporters wear buttons that say "Vote Whiskey" as they show up in support as company owners appeared before the Hamilton County Commission in this file photo.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should whiskey be manufactured in Hamilton County?

Whiskey bill

A bill allowing cities in Hamilton County to approve whiskey distilleries was delayed for the third straight week on the Senate floor Monday night. But the measure's sponsor, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said he remains confident he has the votes to pass it.

The bill has become a vehicle for several other provisions affecting situations outside Hamilton County, Ketron noted. He said part of Monday's problem was a proposed amendment he agreed to accept from the attorney for Tennessee wine and liquor distributors. It turned out to be poorly drafted, Ketron said, raising alarms with state Revenue Department officials.

As whiskeymakers hoping to move into Hamilton County await decisions from state legislators, a group of residents is working to give prohibition-era bootlegging laws the boot.

Chris Smith, a spokesman for Let Hamilton Distill, said the pro-hooch group is collecting signatures for a petition to have voters decide whether whiskey distilleries should be allowed to operate in Hamilton County.

On Monday, Smith said the group had about 1,500 signatures. It needs 14,000 to give the referendum wings.

The group, which is made up of about 30 volunteers, supports distilleries coming to the Chattanooga area. The petition only asks the Hamilton County Commission to allow residents to settle the matter by a countywide vote.

Citing decades of back and forth between politicians for and against alcohol production in Tennessee, Smith said it's time the matter is settled at the ballot box.

"We think people on either side of the aisle feel that we should let the people decide," Smith said.

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he doesn't drink alcohol, but he voted in November to send a letter to the state delegation in support of allowing liquor distilleries to operate in the county. He said he would again.

"You know, we've got package stores and liquor by the drink. A distillery probably wouldn't contribute to any more alcohol sales or drunk driving -- but it might bring a few more jobs," Henry said.

Commissioner Chester Bankston, one of two commissioners to oppose allowing liquor production, said Monday he would never support the liquor business. But if voters made the decision, he would "have a clear conscience."

"I still oppose it and will until the day I die. I've seen alcohol destroy too many people, and I can't be in favor of it," Bankston said. "My vote is against it. Period."

Commissioner Tim Boyd also did not sign the letter to state lawmakers. He said he opposes special elections because of costs.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@times freepress.com or 423-757-6481.