LOOKING AHEAD: Could changes be coming to Virginia’s alcohol laws?

By: - January 4, 2019 5:01 am

John Lanahan, president of Richmond Hotels Incorporated and Charles Burtner, executive manager, Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, share a drink at the John Marshall Hotel in Richmond on Dec. 17, 1968, to celebrate the first day of liquor by the drink in Virginia. V.86.153.620, [First Day of Liquor by the Drink], December 17, 1968, The Valentine

Next in a series looking ahead to the General Assembly session that starts next week.

For years, restaurant owners have struggled through the tangled bureaucracy of getting and keeping state permission to serve liquor.

Virginia’s alcohol control laws — from its decision to keep retail liquor sales under the state’s purview and the liquor ratio rule that effectively bans bars — are relics of the post-Prohibition era.

Over several General Assembly sessions, Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, has tried to change the ratio. Some restaurant owners say the ratio law hurts their sales, while others say it’s the only way to ensure dining establishments don’t become rowdy bars.

The Senate’s Subcommittee on Alcoholic Beverage Control, led by DeSteph, has worked on draft legislation that would remove the mixed-drink ratio for restaurants making more than $500,000 in food sales each year.

It’s a more simple process, but it doesn’t necessarily help the small restaurants that most need relief from the ratio, some owners said. DeSteph said the bill is a starting point, and the threshold could change before a final bill is filed.

And while lawmakers have figured out most of the regulations for breweries, there is at least one proposal to tweak the operation of distilleries.

Right now, spirit-makers have to give ABC the markup on products sold onsite. It’s about a $4 million source of revenue for ABC over the next two years.

The bill, proposed by Del. Barry Knight, R- Virginia Beach, would require ABC to pay distillers at least 20 percent of their retail sales. That money would be generated by new Sunday operating hours at liquor stores, giving locations the option to open at 10 a.m. instead of noon, if Knight’s bill passes.

Streamlining ABC licensing

Another part of simplifying ABC rules includes paring down the number of special licenses for places that serve liquor. Right now, there are more than a dozen licenses businesses can apply for to be allowed to serve alcohol.

The list includes special provisions for catering businesses, amphitheaters, trains, boats, airplanes, NASCAR venues and several city-specific licenses.

“The subcommittee found troubling the large number of ABC licenses currently available despite many commonalities among such licenses, as well as the low level of participation in many of the license categories,” DeSteph and fellow Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, wrote in a November letter to ABC’s CEO, Travis Hill.

They directed ABC staff to study the licenses the agency offers and create a plan to consolidate them by November 2019.

In the meantime, lawmakers are still proposing new licenses.

Part of the Subcommittee on Alcoholic Beverage Control’s fix to the ratio rule is to create a new license for places that sell high-end, craft spirits.

Those establishments have been a conversation starter in the subcommittee because of the quandary the ratio poses: Even though those places may sell less alcohol by volume, Virginia’s food-to-liquor ratio is based on price. And that can be difficult to follow when there are single servings of alcohol that can cost thousands of dollars.

In addition to that license proposal, Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, wants to allow liquor service at theaters in the historic district of Bridgewater.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.