Politics & Government

Sunday morning option for Tar Heel alcohol sales advancing through state Legislature

Michael Sinclair, a co-owner of the Barrister & Brewer farm distillery in Durham, is photographed with Mystic Bourbon Liqueur and Heart of Mystic Bourbon in the facility's tasting room on Dec. 29, 2016.
Michael Sinclair, a co-owner of the Barrister & Brewer farm distillery in Durham, is photographed with Mystic Bourbon Liqueur and Heart of Mystic Bourbon in the facility's tasting room on Dec. 29, 2016. The Herald-Sun

North Carolina’s changing demographics and surging specialty beverage industry are helping ease long-held reservations about expanding access to alcohol, including sales while many Christians are in the pews.

Legislation advancing at the General Assembly would let county commissions or city councils approve ordinances allowing restaurants and retailers to sell alcohol starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays, instead of noon. The midday start has reflected deference to Sunday morning church services in the historically Bible Belt state.

Depending on permits, retailers can sell beer and wine, and restaurants and also can make mixed drinks in jurisdictions where alcohol sales have already been approved by voters. The option to sell two hours earlier – which also would apply to what people consider bars – would not require local referenda.

Opening sales earlier would be a significant nod to crowds that may prefer sipping mimosas at brunch or buying six-packs for a Carolina Panthers’ tailgate on Sunday mornings.

The earlier start is “good for economic development, job creation and tax revenue,” Rep. Jon Hardister, a Guilford County Republican, told House alcohol committee colleagues last week before they recommended the measure by a wide margin.

The measure would also expand exceptions to the state’s 80-year system of requiring liquor bottles be sold through government-run stores. The Senate has already approved a version of the measure, which is expected on the House floor early next week, as this year’s session winds down. Any final bill also would go to Gov. Roy Cooper.

The bill would aid the state’s permitted distilleries, which have grown from 14 three years ago to 70 today. Right now, distillery tour visitors can buy one bottle of liquor at the distillery per year. The legislation would increase that to five. And distilleries could offer free tastings at public festivals and public events, just like the state’s numerous breweries and wineries.

“The entrepreneur’s spirit is alive and well in our distilleries,” said Sen. Rick Gunn, an Alamance County Republican. “North Carolina is known for its tourism and hospitality industry, and this bill will help both of these industries grow and prosper.”

Social conservatives have fought successfully to keep in place the state’s direct control of wholesale and retail liquor distribution. But they have seen legislative support erode as urban areas, which comprise an increasing percentage of the state’s population, diversify by religion and traditions.

The Rev. Mark Creech with the Christian Action League of North Carolina told the House committee the legislation “endangers the public’s health” through easier access to liquor. The bill also allows a distillery to sell their liquor directly to out-of-state buyers, raising the risk of online sales to people under 21, Creech said.

All ABC stores would remain closed on Sundays. But Creech said the 10 a.m. option appears to slight churches that play a key role in preventing underage drinking and helping those overcome alcohol abuse.

“I think we deserve that respect to continue,” Creech told the committee. “By the way, there’s nothing wrong with government working to provide an optimum environment for religion to flourish, and this legislation diminishes that.”

Bill supporters said Sunday morning sales are simply responding to the desires of residents and inconveniences for out-of-state visitors when told about the law. Gunn said all but a few states allow alcohol sales of some kind before noon.

“Our guests are often disappointed that we cannot offer them a celebratory beverage prior to 12:01 p.m.,” said Jim Beley, general manager of the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, representing the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican, was skeptical that allowing alcohol sales during church hours will increase alcohol abuse.

“I would say that’s more of a case of we’re just not doing our mission in teaching these people restraint, good behavior,” Brawley said.