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Lawmakers cautioned against permitting sale of strong mixed drinks outside liquor stores

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A meeting of the newly formed Mixed Spirit Beverage Task Force this week saw its members cautioned by several stakeholders against permitting mixed drinks with alcohol content as high as 12.5% to be sold alongside beer and wine in retail stores.

After a bill that would have allowed ready-to-drink spirit products to be sold at grocery and convenience stores failed to become law last year, Gov. Kay Ivey created a task force to study the idea further, particularly how RTD spirits would be licensed and distributed. 

The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board historically has controlled the distribution and licensing of alcoholic beverages in the state, something ABC leadership has maintained a desire to continue, despite the efforts of some – such as Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur – to get the state out of managing alcohol sales.

Niel Graff, ABC Board chief operating officer, was among those who cautioned the task force as to his agency’s concerns of allowing RTD spirits with alcohol content as high as 12.5% to be sold alongside beer and wine, and argued a limit of 7% would be more appropriate.

“I think the bill as it was written last year had 12.5% (as the limit), and our position is this: the products that we’re talking about are not normal products,” Graff said. 

“It consumes like a beer, but it’s going to have the potency of 12.5%. It’ll go down a lot easier; it’s an easy-drinking product that tastes good, and we’re concerned that younger people will get their hands on it and consume more than they should. That ties back into us protecting the citizenry of Alabama from the harms of spirit-based alcohol.”

Ready-to-drink spirits currently are only available for sale in less than 1,000 ABC and private liquor stores, compared to more than 4,600 locations where beer and wine are sold. Whether RTD spirit availability will expand to traditional retail stores will likely be debated in the upcoming legislative session.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, a member of the task force, said a majority of of RTD spirits currently available for sale at Alabama liquor stores had an alcohol content of 7% or less, and that of the roughly 300,000 cases that were sold over the past year, most were between 4% and 7%. Allowing for RTD spirits with alcohol content up to 12.5%, Singleton later told Alabama Daily News, was merely meeting consumer demand.

Nevertheless, Graff cautioned against allowing for such high alcohol content in RTD spirits to be sold at retail stores, noting Alabama’s neighboring states’ more conservative approaches.

“Our stance is that 95% of this category is under 7%; there’s a very few products that are over that 7%, and at 12,5%, we would be the only state in the southeast that goes that route,” Graff continued. 

“Florida’s at 6%, Tennessee’s at 7%, Mississippi’s at 6%, Georgia only allows products to be sold in liquor stores, so that would put us at the forefront at this. At the ABC, we feel like it’s more responsible for us not to be at the forefront.”

Graff also said that were lawmakers to move forward with allowing for RTD spirits to be sold at retail stores, making the packaging similar to beer would be preferable to the ABC Board.

“We believe that the product should be sold in single-serve cans; cans is a key word for us, it keeps the spirit of the initial bill in check, and it says that this product is a product to be consumed like a beer in the same environment,” he said. 

“If the bill does move forward with 12.5% and it ends up passing, it’s pretty imperative that it’s in a can so that it distinguishes itself from the other spirit-based (drinks) out there. We ultimately do not want to see 1.75 (liters) of Jose Cuervo up on the shelves at grocery stores, and we feel like anything outside a can puts us there.”

Rep. Andy Whitt, R-Harvest, another member of the task force, spoke in agreement to Graff’s concerns about packaging, and shared an anecdote of his wife – then a school counselor – who encountered a student who brought an RTD spirit to school by accident, mistaking it for an energy drink.

Another voice that cautioned against setting the upper limit of alcohol content to 12.5% was Greg Davis, president and CEO of Alabama Citizens Action Program, an interdenominational ministry.

“I represent pastors and churches all over our state, and they appreciate us to remind you the effects that these products often have, and the more wildly they become available, they’re going to get in the hands of people who ordinarily wouldn’t have sought them out,” Davis said.

After the meeting, Singleton expanded on his support for allowing RTD spirits with up to 12.5% alcohol content to be sold alongside beer and wine, and suggested that he would be in support of including extra accountability measures as to reduce misuse of the drinks.

“We’ve got some malt beverages out there with 13.9%, (so) at the end of the day, I think it’s all about control and responsibility,” he told ADN. 

“I think what we need to make sure is that these convenience and grocery stores do mandatory training versus voluntary training. ABC only requires voluntary training based on selling to underage (people), so we need to have mandatory training if they’re going to sell (spirits with up to 12.5% alcohol content at grocery and convenience stores), that’s what I’m really for.”

Task force members ultimately agreed to meet at least once more before the legislative session in February to finalize their recommended legislation.


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