Utah liquor board postpones ruling on distillery's request to sell mini-bottles

IndustriesAssociated Press

State liquor regulators have pushed off a decision about granting special permission for a distillery to sell its brandy in sample sizes, arguing the move is too drastic for them to make without having lawmakers weigh in first.

The Hive Winery in Layton has rolled out its first distilling products this year, and owner Jay Yahne told Utah's liquor commissioners Tuesday that by allowing his distillery to sell smaller bottles of brandy, customers may be more likely to spend $70 to $130 to purchase a full bottle.

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Under Utah liquor laws, sales of mini-bottles of alcohol are generally illegal except for case-by-case exceptions set by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

Yahne has been working to get that exemption for about a year, but members of the alcohol commission said at their meeting Tuesday that they're not ready to make a decision.

"Mini-bottles have a checkered history in this state. And we want to make sure the Legislature completely understands what the concept is before we wade into it," commission chairman John T. Nielsen told reporters after the meeting.

The small bottles were once used in Utah restaurants, where they were given to patrons to mix their own drinks rather than having restaurant staff prepare them. Lawmakers banned bottles smaller than 200 milliliters (6.76 ounces) more than two decades ago because they unintentionally left drinkers with strong drinks. Instead, they moved to metered liquor dispensers that control the amount of alcohol going into a drink.

Since then, Utah has granted two exemptions to the mini-bottle rule. Airlines are allowed to sell them on flights, and hotels can sell them through room service.

Nielsen said the mini-bottle issue is entwined with a larger debate over the state's piecemeal sampling policies and he hopes lawmakers step in soon to clarify tasting laws.

"All of those things need to be clarified. They need to be made fair and they need to be uniform," he said.

Brewers, wine makers and distillers around the country often serve "flights" of liquor to allow customers to compare samples, but Utah law only expressly allows wineries to offer such samples.

Under an "educational" exemption in the law, one Utah distillery was granted a special tasting permit in July that allows it to offer samples during paid tastings after an hours-long tour of their facility and the whiskey-making process.

Yahne told commissioners Tuesday that a special exemption isn't an option for his boutique distillery because it can't afford to run an educational program.

He told reporters after the meeting that he had hoped the commission would have approved his request but found out a few days ago that they weren't ready to make a decision.

"The state law allows us to ask, so we did," Yahne said. "Basically, they're just dragging their feet."

State Sen. Jerry Stevenson, a Layton Republican, is working on legislation to address Utah's alcohol sampling laws, but he has not released any specifics or said whether he'll ask lawmakers to consider it when they convene in January.

Utah's complicated liquor laws include provisions that explicitly bar the state from promoting the sale or consumption of alcohol. The majority of Utah lawmakers and residents belong to the Salt Lake City-based Mormon church, which teaches members to avoid drinking alcohol.

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Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice .