MONTPELIER — Comments made by Vermont Department of Liquor Control Commissioner Patrick Delaney earlier this week are raising concerns among some lawmakers that he disparaged the state’s fledgling distillery industry.
Delaney testified Tuesday before the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee regarding proposed changes to Vermont’s liquor laws. Delaney was speaking about legislation proposed by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, when he told the committee that distilled spirits, typically referred to as hard alcohol, are used solely for a person to get drunk.
“In my point of view, there’s only one reason to drink distilled spirits. It’s not because of the finish, … it’s not because of the aromatic nuances. It doesn’t necessarily complement food,” Delaney told the committee.
Delaney said Thursday that he did not intend his remarks to reflect negatively on Vermont’s distillers.
“I’d like to assure you that there’s no association whatsoever to who manufactures the product, whether it’s made in Vermont or England or elsewhere,” he said. “I certainly would not want to be construed to be making negative comments about our particular craft distillers.”
Delaney said people consume alcohol for different reasons. Beer and wine, according to the commissioner, are agricultural-based products that are “essentially food products” and “still associated with local foods.” Distilled spirits are not consumed in the same way as those.
“My impression and my opinion is I think most people drink spirits for different reasons than to complement cuisine. I don’t think we see most people sitting down to dinner and pouring a cocktail. They either precede or come subsequent to dinner,” he said.
He said he would not use the terms “totally or solely or without exception” when noting that spirits are often consumed to get drunk.
Scheuermann was presenting proposed legislative changes to law sought by Vermont distillers that would allow them to provide more samples to customers. Current law allows Vermont’s distilleries to obtain a liquor license that allows them to make sales by the bottle and to pour samples for customers. Under that license they can provide up to four samples, with sample limited to a quarter-ounce of hard alcohol. If a customer sampled the maximum of four they would imbibe a total of 1 ounce of hard alcohol.
The proposal presented by Scheuermann would raise each sample to 1 ounce, for a total sampling of 4 ounces.
“A quarter of an ounce is really a tough thing to do with a taste,” she said.
Ed Metcalfe, the owner of Vermont Distillers in Whitingham and the treasurer of the Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont, said distilleries in Vermont have different needs in terms of sample size. But the comments by Delaney are not helpful to the industry, he said.
“I find that almost unbelievable that the liquor commissioner would say that about liquor. I find that incredible and I find that completely disparaging of the industry and I completely disagree,” Metcalfe said.
Metcalfe said his most popular product is a maple cream liqueur that rings in at 17 percent alcohol by volume, but he also makes vodka and other strong spirits.
“I believe they can be drunk and enjoyed in moderation just like beer and wine,” he said. “I’ve seen more people intoxicated on the other two.”
The comments made by Delaney quickly spread among some lawmakers who thought they negatively portrayed Vermont’s distillery industry, which is growing following the rapid rise of craft breweries and hard cider makers.
“It got everybody’s attention,” Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, the chairman of the committee said. “I would say that we’re growing jobs. We have a real strong growth rate in our craft beers, our Vermont wines, and the real mover right now is Vermont distillers.”
Mullin said he was alarmed by Delaney’s comments.
“To kind of have the person that is promoting and also regulating (liquor production and sales) … make the statement that they don’t believe there’s any reason to drink a spiritous beverage other than to get drunk, it just alarmed me. That’s the person that we’re charging with trying to grow our sales, trying to get people to stay in Vermont instead of go to New Hampshire to buy alcohol,” Mullin said.
Scheuermann said she was surprised by Delaney’s comments because Vermont distilleries are “an important segment of our economy.”
“I was surprised at the comment that he made in there,” she said. “I don’t think the intention of the commissioner was to be disparaging of anyone in particular, but it seemed as though the distilled liquor industry is not as supported by this commissioner as some others. I hope that that’s not the case.”
Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, whose district encompasses Smuggler’s Notch Distillery, among other alcohol manufacturers, said he has helped pass a number of statutes aimed at boosting distillers and the industry in Vermont. He said the industry is “exactly what Vermont should be promoting.”
“It’s a thriving industry and there are now nearly 20 members of the Vermont Distillers Association. There are a number of really good jobs and they produce a really good product. I think what the Distillers Association has become and the people that work there are the entrepreneurs that the state should be really, really proud of,” he said. “I don’t know how you can not talk about them positively. It seems unfathomable to me that you could talk about it any other way.”
Mullin said it is possible Delaney did not intend to imply what he said. “In fairness to him, maybe it’s not really what he meant to say, but that’s what he said,” Mullin said on Thursday.
“I understand he walks a fine line because he also has to be the person that makes sure people are drinking responsibly, but it just raised eyebrows,” Mullin added. “I think that based on the number of people that have asked me about it, I’m sure the word is getting out so I’m sure the conversation is taking place. I don’t think I have to do anything further.”