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House panel advances craft distilleries expansion

The Republican’s bill would raise new annual production cap for craft distillers to 250,000 gallons, more than tripling the current limit.

Republicans on a House panel kept afloat greater freedoms for craft distilleries Wednesday, keeping alive Rep. Anthony Sabatini‘s measure to expand the industry in the state.

The Howey-in-the-Hills Republican’s bill (HB 583) would raise the new annual production cap for craft distillers to 250,000 gallons, more than tripling the current limit. The new ceiling would accommodate the removal of the six-bottle-per-person sales limit also struck by the bill.

“[Craft distilleries] bring people from all around the state and all around the country,” Sabatini said. “They come and they tour them, and it brings new life into parts of your city, helps redevelop the city by bringing an exciting new amenity that people enjoy — going to a craft distilleries and seeing how the beverages are being made.”

Last Session, the House passed Sabatini’s similar distillery bill (HB 1219) 71-41, but the bill never made it through a Senate committee.

And while the Business & Professions Subcommittee passed this Session’s bill 8-5, it did so along party lines. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Wengay Newton, feared the bill’s provisions to let distillers ship their beverages out of state would violate the U.S. Constitution because state law would still prevent outside distillers from shipping to Florida.

“My problem is I would hope that the member would not expect us to vote on something that he just admitted on the record, on the Florida Channel, is unconstitutional,” Newton said.

But Sabatini said the bill was not unconstitutional, rather that he would address any concerns that it violates the interstate commerce clause.

Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite argued the bill should require that the craft beverages contain a portion of state-produced goods. And despite Sabatini assuring the panel that distillery gift shops only sell beverages produced by their brand, Willhite pushed for the bill to require that.

“Distilling is really, for me, an art form,” Sabatini said. “We should not restrain these distillers from using only one state’s products. If they want to bring in a bunch of Georgia peaches and make the best whiskey in the world here in Florida, but they’re using a product from another state, it’s not the role of government to prohibit them from doing that.”

Willhite, who said the state has had difficulty collecting taxes on some interstate products, feared the same problem would befall craft beverages. Wine and Spirits Distributors of Florida president Scott Ashley concurred and testified that the bill could open the door for bars to essentially become nationwide liquor stores.

“There’ll be clever bar owners out there that will want to put a still in their bar and not have to make anything because it doesn’t actually mandate making anything,” Ashley said. “The bill is vague enough that it will allow you to ship outside the state other brands that you have purchased as a vendor.”

Sabatini’s bill would also eliminate container size ceilings for wine and cider containers, two uncontroversial provisions within the committee. The panel also advanced a separate bill (HB 6037) to remove the size restrictions on wine containers authored by Rep. Chip LaMarca, unanimously and without debate.

Two more craft distillery bills (SB 138 and SB 482) by Sens. Travis Hutson and Jeff Brandes await their first hearings. HB 6037 next goes to the Commerce Committee while HB 538 must first stop in the Government Operations & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee before heading to the commerce panel.

Written By

Renzo Downey covers the Florida Legislature for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering the Texas House of Representatives for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at renzo@floridapolitics.com and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

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