Craft distilleries in Northeast Florida looking to benefit by new bill moving through state legislature

Owners of area distilleries say they're encouraged by a bill that passed through the Florida House this week because of the ways it could improve their business.

The House voted 71-41 in favor of HB 1219 on Thursday, and now it has to be approved by the Senate.

The bill is looking to raise the threshold that distinguishes the production of a craft distillery from 75,000 gallons up to 250,000 gallons. It would also allow wine sales in any size containers, let people cork a bottle of wine if they want to take it home, and pet owners will be thrilled because dogs and cats would be allowed on the premises as long as they don't get near any food production.

The bill would also allow distilleries to ship directly out of state, but area business owners say they're most excited about eliminating the limit on the number of bottles they can sell directly to customers each year.

It means craft distillers would no longer be limited to selling six bottles of each type of liquor to an individual customer per year.

"If you can imagine going into a business and you want to buy something and they can't sell it how frustrating that is both for you as a customer, as well as the business," says Phil McDaniel, the CEO of St. Augustine Distillery.

He says that's the reality of running a craft distillery in Florida right now. That's why he's been working with lawmakers to change what he can and can't do.

There's no limit to how many bottles of wine a customer can buy from a winery or how many growlers someone can get from a brewery, but he says it's illegal for him to sell more than six bottles to someone who stops by his distillery. That's the limit for the entire year.

"These laws are almost a hundred years old, and there's no reason for them to be holding back this industry," McDaniel says.

He tells WOKV he’s seen things move in the right direction. He went from not being able to sell any bottles directly to customers when he first started, to being able to sell two bottles per year and then two bottles per label per year, until finally the current law of six bottles per label per year went into effect.

"This [bill] would put us on a much more level playing field with not only Florida brewers and farm wineries, but more importantly distilleries in other states," McDaniel says.

But up the road in Jacksonville there are craft distilleries that don't have the luxury of tourists coming through nearly as often as St. Augustine.

Paul Grey is the CEO of Carve Vodka and Grey Matter Distillery, and he says the six-bottle limit per label is even harder for him.

He says he hopes the bill becomes law because he envisions selling bottles of liquor to regular customers who live in the area, and it's tough to make money when they aren't legally allowed to buy more than six a year.

"I want to grow into more of a tourist facility at some point, so that will be really great for me because you make so much more revenue selling it directly to a customer out of your distillery," Grey says.

He says he decided to operate with a "distributor business model" because it made more sense to sell Carve Vodka to restaurants and liquor stores through a distributor. But because the distributor acts as a middle man, it means Grey's margins aren't nearly as good as they would be if he was selling bottles straight to the customers.

The State Senate will have to vote the bill through next week before it can be considered by Governor Ron DeSantis.

But McDaniel says he's encouraged by the momentum and the support distilleries received this year, and if it doesn't pass they'll pick up right where they left off next year.

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