Hamilton County's legislative delegation split over Chattanooga Whiskey distillery

photo Chattanooga Whiskey

NASHVILLE - Three lawmakers in Hamilton County's seven-member legislative delegation say they are prepared to honor county commissioners' request to change state law to allow local whiskey distilling.

But despite last week's agreement by seven of nine county commissioners, the push by Chattanooga Whiskey Co. owners to manufacture the product in their home city is not yet a done deal in the General Assembly.

The main opponent, Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said last week he remains adamantly opposed.

"They talk about jobs. They're talking about 10 jobs," said Floyd, who is opposed to alcohol and cites the carnage inflicted by drunken drivers.

Jobs are important, Floyd said, but he added, "I'd much rather my city be known for something more than whiskey. I've got some strong convictions. I'm not going to cave on those. Those convictions of mine will never be up for negotiation."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he backs the proposal given the commission's support.

"If it's a request from the commission, we usually pass it," he said.

Commissioners are expected to present a letter request to the delegation this month.

Still, McCormick said, "We'll have to see how strongly the delegation supports it. I'm favorable toward the idea. If we can get 10 to 12 people working that are working here instead of in Indiana, I'll support it."

Chattanooga Whiskey is produced in Indiana.

For years, Hamilton County lawmakers had a rule that the entire delegation had to be on board in support of legislation affecting the county. But the rule wasn't always followed, even on alcohol-related bills, and in recent years total agreement hasn't been an issue.

McCormick said he understands that some people oppose alcohol, but he doubts that distilling whiskey will affect local drinking habits.

"The main thing is that it will bring jobs," he said.

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who had objected to Hamilton County's exclusion from the 2009 law that paved the way for new distilleries in Tennessee, said she staunchly backs a change allowing county commissioners to decide the issue.

"It's an industry, and people drink alcoholic beverages," she said. "They drink whiskey and they're drinking whiskey that's going to be produced somewhere else."

Favors said she believes there will be "at least five votes" within the delegation in support of the requested change.

Speaking before last week's County Commission vote, Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, said he opposes alcohol but would vote for the legislation if most commissioners signed a letter in support.

But two freshman legislators elected last month, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, said they need time to study the proposal.

"I remember the hard-fought liquor-by-the-drink referendums that all these municipalities went through," Gardenhire said.

"I need to be comfortable in my mind that we're treating everybody fairly ... past and not all of a sudden giving somebody a break," he said.

The delegation's chairman, Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he wants any changes restricted to cities like Chattanooga, where voters have approved liquor by the drink and package sales.

"I'm hoping that the sponsors of the original legislation will come back and clean it up because obviously it's very confusing to people," said Watson, who asked State Attorney General Robert Cooper for an opinion on the 2009 law.

The law allowed county commissions to opt in if voters previously had approved liquor by the drink and package sales "within" a county. Hamilton and other counties represented by legislators who objected to the law were excluded.

Watson said it wouldn't be fair to allow distilleries in unincorporated areas or towns where voters have not approved by-the-drink and package sales.

But for cities where voters have done so, such as Chattanooga, "I think the people have made the decision and the statute would apply there," he said.

Voters in Lookout Mountain, Signal Mountain and Lakeside have approved liquor by the drink and package store sales. Collegedale, East Ridge and Soddy-Daisy voters have approved liquor by the drink. Walden has approved only retail sales, while voters in Ridgeside have approved neither.

In the county's unincorporated areas, retail sales are allowed but restaurants can sell only wine and beer unless specifically authorized by the legislature to sell liquor.

Staff writer Kate Harrison contributed to this report.