Eric Kotowski, owner of Elm City Distillery LLC, which he founded in 2009, talks about the business and it's new location on Capitol Drive in Wallingford, Tuesday, December 4, 2012. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal)
Wallingford distillery to offer tours, but retail sales will have to wait
Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013 11:35 pm
Andrew Ragali/ Record-Journal CT
WALLINGFORD — When Elm City Distillery moved from Durham to Wallingford in December, owner Eric Kotowski said he hoped to be able to sell liquor directly to the public as well as distributing it to local package stores.
Kotowski said selling his products to people who tour the distillery would help spread the word about the locally made vodka and rye whiskey. His model would be similar to that of the fast-growing craft beer and farm winery businesses, which offer tours, samples and retail sales.
Tours are set to begin this summer at Elm City Distillery, at 53 Capital Drive, but Kotowski won’t be doing much more than offering free samples, because it’s illegal to sell spirits directly from a distillery in Connecticut.
But until Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signs a bill passed by the legislature last week, it’s even illegal to offer samples of spirits at a distillery.
When Kotowski moved to Wallingford, he asked legislators supporting the bill to add a provision to allow retail sales by a distillery.
“They weren’t too thrilled about it,” Kotowski said.
Kotowski said he spoke to state Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, who offered a new proposal to allow retail sales at distilleries. It did not make it through the legislature this year, Mushinsky said, because there are always problems when working with liquor laws. A “logjam” of people became involved and complicated the issue, she said.
“Everybody at the end kind of threw up their hands and said we promise we can get this done next year,” Mushinsky said.
One of the complications involved minimum pricing provisions in state liquor laws. The Connecticut Package Stores Association supported a measure with minimum markups, but Mushinsky said the governor would have vetoed it.
“The governor doesn’t like artificial prices,” Mushinsky said. “The governor is a free-market guy.”
Although the bill ran into roadblocks this year, “we think it’s a viable thing to do,” said Carroll J. Hughes, executive direction and chief lobbyist for the Connecticut Package Stores Association.
“I believe we can resolve difficulties on the issue,” he said, adding that he supports local products like Kotowski’s.
Kotowski said the price differential wouldn’t be significant. “I can’t sell below what I’m selling to package stores,” he said.
Sales at the distillery would be incidental to the tours, he said, and it would be unlikely that customers would drive a long distance just to buy his liquor. The proposed legislation would also have set a daily limit on sales.
The retail sale of liquor “is not the heart of the business,” Kotowski said.
A representative with the state Department of Consumer Protection, which has responsibility for liquor relation, was unable to comment for this story.
Jerry Farrell Jr., a Wallingford resident and former commissioner of the DCP, said liquor legislation can be very difficult to enact.
“How do you do something that is fair to everyone?” Farrell asked.
While craft breweries and farm wineries are allowed to sell their own products, Farrell said, spirits may not be in the same category. If alcohol is to be sold at a distillery, there would have to be an inspections process, requiring more state staff, he said. “It may largely be a budgetary matter that currently there’s no one to do that inspection,” he said.
The difference in opinion over pricing also creates problems, he said. While Malloy wants fewer price controls, package stores want more.
“I don’t know if there is any happy medium,” Farrell said, adding that sometimes it takes everyone sitting in a room together, and several years, to put new liquor laws into effect. Farrell, a lawyer, works with the bar, restaurant and hotel industry in obtaining liquor permits. He represents wholesalers, too, so “I see both sides of the coin.”
Now that the legislative session is over, Kotowski said, he better understands the process of getting a bill passed. He said he hopes that experience, along with Mushinsky’s presence, will help next year.
“Now I know what people are thinking and hopefully we can come to an agreement on something,” he said.
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