Spirited debate should bring tastier result

From the pages of In Business magazine.

I’ve never felt more like singing the blues for booze, or at least popping a cork for Wisconsin’s small distilleries, which simply ask for a level playing field.

In Wisconsin, outfits like Madison’s Yahara Bay Distillers are not allowed to offer product samples — tastings — at licensed retailers like groceries or liquor stores. When you make 18 products, including several low-alcohol liqueurs enriched by Wisconsin’s apple and cranberry industries, it helps to have consumers sample your products. Without tastings, consumers naturally are reluctant to commit upwards of $40 per bottle.

Nick Quint, owner and founder of Yahara Bay, blames the “Big Beer” contingent of the Wisconsin Tavern League for working to scuttle a bill, AB 344, that would put distilleries on par with wineries and breweries, which are allowed to have such tastings. I’m tempted to say Wisconsin has one of the best legislatures that Big Beer can buy, but the lawmakers who have sponsored AB 344 certainly get it, and Gov. Scott Walker has told Quint he would sign the measure if it reaches his desk.

Those opposed to moving it there suggest that spirit tastings would result in more mayhem than an Allstate commercial, but Quint thinks they’ve sampled too much of their own brew. “All alcohol is the same, whether it’s wine, beer, or spirits,” he says. “It’s just a matter of quantity.”

A sampling, he adds, is about a half-ounce, the equivalent of a teaspoon. That’s enough alcohol content to fall between what is currently allowed for beer and wine, and the proposed law would allow no more than three samples per person. 

Thanks to champions of small business, Wisconsin distilleries can have tastings in their own facilities. They can also go into bars, but tastings don’t work in those settings because people go there for cocktails, not to purchase entire bottles. 



But without the ability to offer tastings in Wisconsin grocery and liquor stores, Yahara Bay does more business in New York, one of 37 states that allow distilleries to have tastings in stores, than in its home state. 

That’s why lawmakers should let Wisconsin consumers — not the big brewers who finance their campaigns — choose winners and losers. When the free market is allowed to work, consumers make their own choices and the providers of products and services either respond to them or risk losing market share. The debate over distillery tastings is another example of government partnering with big business to interfere with that process — this time, at the expense of both consumers and small businesses.