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Cocktail Caucus: The Virginia General Assembly Rethinks Alcohol Laws



The battle is raging over whether Virginia lawmakers should change the food-to-alcohol ratio required for restaurants to hang onto their licenses from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department. In addition, there are a variety of related bills rattling around the halls of the General Assembly. And if passed, they’ll affect Richmonders out on the town. Here are some ideas proposed to amend various aspects of state law:

Changing the Ratio: Bills in the House and Senate, sponsored by two Virginia Beach Republicans, Delegate Scott Taylor and Sen. Bill DeSteph, proposed to reduce the food-to-alcohol ratio to 25-percent food to 75-percent alcohol. The first thing that you need to keep in mind is that beer, wine and cider are exempt from the calculations.

Currently, total restaurant sales must equal 45 percent or more food to 55 percent or less spirits. Some say the craft cocktail movement is partly to blame for upsetting the totals — fancy drinks can cost $15 and more, equaling an entree price. And given that many people drink more than one cocktail, food sales, in the eyes of the ABC enforcement arm, can begin to appear inadequate.

Shortly before subcommittees decided on these bills’ viability, they were amended to provide more specifics. The price the restaurant pays for food and spirits will be used in calculations instead of the price the restaurant charges the customer. This is slightly misleading. Restaurants pay the same retail price for liquor that you and I do, so for shots, at least, it actually would be a 25 percent wholesale food cost vs. a 75 percent retail liquor cost ratio. Taylor’s bill has been continued to 2017.

On Thursday, Feb. 11, the Senate passed a total overhaul of DeSteph’s bill. It now proposes a two-year pilot program overseen by the ABC Board that retains the 45-55 ratio but uses the wholesale price of food and drinks instead of total gross receipts in the calculation.

To make matters more confusing, in another bill that’s still in committee, DeSteph also proposes that restaurants would need to sell either 25 percent of gross receipts or $5,000 worth of food to retain licenses. Caterers still must to meet the 25-75 ratio.

Drinks and a Show: Delegate Dave Albo, R-Springfield and Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, have proposed that if you see a big show in Richmond or Norfolk at a performing arts center that can hold at least 1,400 people and is old and has undergone historic preservation, you’ll be allowed to buy a mixed drink. Albo seems to argue that restoring a historic property essentially makes your business a nonprofit, and therefore, those venues should be eligible for the same kind of liquor license. The first bill was passed by the House, the second by the Senate and both are in committee.

Market Study: Let’s say you’re a small store that sells prepared food and has a few tables for customers. Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, proposes that when applying for an ABC license to sell mixed beverages, your business should be treated as a restaurant. It’s passed the Senate.

Double the Fun: A bill co-sponsored by Delegate Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, and Delegate Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, says you can buy a drink while pondering stogies in a cigar shop. It’s in committee. And Delegate Tag Greason, R-Potomac Falls, has proposed that you can drink while you take art lessons. That’s also in committee.

Blurred Boundary: Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, has a specific proposal that grants an ABC license to Kanawha Valley Arena Resort by cleverly giving it to the property along the stretch of road where it’s located. It’s been passed by the Senate.

Poured Out: Bars could pour alcohol from a larger container into a smaller container if another of Albo’s proposals goes through. This is, um, exciting to a certain subset because currently beverages must remain in original containers. The chances of this bill passing are slim.

Grain Power: The strongest neutral grain spirit that can be sold in the state is 101 proof. But Delegate Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, proposed to legalize 151-proof grain alcohol. In practical terms, it means a 21-year-old would be able to drink a shot that’s 75.5-percent alcohol. This genius idea passed in the House, and the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee is mulling it over.

Beer Relief: Apparently lawmakers remain infatuated with beer. A bill sponsored by Landes proposes that commercial brewing equipment, including labels and boxes, should be tax-free. Will this translate into lower beer prices? The Finance Committee still needs to vote on it.

Seconds and Thirds: Two bills increase the amount of liquor you may consume at a distillery during a tasting event — one, sponsored by Delegate Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, and another, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath. They also allow distilleries to sell their own products. Right now, you can only purchase bottles of liquor at an ABC store. Deeds’ bill passed the Senate.

Unbottled: Corkage fees aren’t just for wine anymore. Delegate David Yancey, R-Newport News, proposes to allow restaurants to charge fees for opening beer and cider that customers bring with them from the outside. It’s been passed by the House and sent to the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee.

Shift in Force: And last, here’s one of the biggest bills under consideration. Delegate Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, proposes that special ABC agents would be eliminated and their enforcement duties be transferred to the Virginia State Police in 2017. Does this mean no more college students mistakenly terrorized by undercover ABC agents? Probably not. A subcommittee recommended killing the bill. S

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