Overhaul of Alaska alcohol laws makes progress in Legislature

A dog stands with its paws on a counter. A glass of beer sits on the counter.
Tasting room dog Chai inspects a beer at Onsite Brewing in Midtown Anchorage. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

For more than 10 years, lawmakers have been considering a massive overhaul of Alaska’s laws governing the sale of alcohol in the state. It hasn’t happened, though, as different interest groups have fought over conflicting priorities year after year.

But people who’ve been watching the annual battle over a revision of the state’s alcohol laws see signs of progress this year. For Sarah Oates, president of the Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailers Association, that’s a good thing.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to help the existing hospitality industry,” she said. “This industry has suffered immeasurably over the last two years. We all know that. And it is still recovering.”

This year, the most controversial provision has been one that limits the number of tasting rooms for breweries, distilleries and wineries. Right now, there can be one for every 3,000 residents. Under the new law, there could only be one for every 12,000.

Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, is concerned about the change. He’s a former bar owner who says limiting the number of new tasting rooms will provide an advantage to the existing breweries.

“I don’t think they’re a bad influence on society,” he said. “I worry about the business competition level playing field.”

It’s a point that’s backed up by Sherry Stead, co-owner of Grace Ridge Brewing in Homer. She’s concerned that the bill will prevent new businesses from opening.

“It sets up monopolies in our small communities, limits competition and stops future business growth across Alaska,” she said.

The leading legislator guiding the bill on its long path through the Legislature is Soldotna Republican Peter Micciche, who’s now the Senate president. He says the regulation on the number of tasting rooms is a compromise, just like dozens of other sections of the bill. He says it was worked out by a team of stakeholders.

“We went back to the team and said, ‘How can you come together as a team on expanding opportunities to breweries, distilleries and wineries so they can succeed. People are voting with their feet. How can we do that and still not have a brewery on every corner?’ So this was the solution,” he said. “That’s why it’s a compromise.”

The law makes many other changes. It allows tasting rooms to stay open later: 10 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. But patrons would have to leave at closing time, while now they can linger with newly served drinks.

Other changes include:

  • Allowing brewery owners to buy a bar, restaurant or package store, or for such businesses to be attached to a hotel
  • Allowing package or liquor stores to provide limited free samples
  • Allowing golf courses to sell alcohol to those on the course — and not just beer and wine
  • Regulating online alcohol sales, including requiring delivery companies to get signatures from people aged 21 or older
  • Changing some sales to people who are younger than 21 from being crimes to being violations subject to fines

Micciche says the bill as it stands is the result of many compromises — and that it could serve as a model for what it takes to get something done in the Capitol.

“When we started these meetings, these people were 180 out, not even talking about these issues, they were talking past one another,” he said. “They got to the point where they could agree on something where they’re all equally unhappy with the outcome but recognize the value of where we are.”

The bill received support from nearly 40 people in public testimony recently, although a few asked that the limit on the number of tasting rooms be changed. The House Finance Committee is deciding whether to send the bill to the House floor. The Senate already passed the measure.

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.