Bill would lift 'spirits' for consumers

OLYMPIA -- Walking down the vodka aisle of a state liquor store these days can be an overwhelming experience.

Consumers can decide whether to buy banana-flavored, huckleberry-flavored or even whipped cream-flavored vodka.

But legislation that has been introduced in the state Legislature may offer spirits savorers a chance to sample before making a decision.

House Bill 1202 would create a pilot project to allow state liquor stores and stores that contain state liquor stores to offer spirits sampling.

The bill was the brainchild of the Distillery Representatives Association of Washington, or D.R.A.W., which is made up of Washington-based craft distillers and representatives of Washington-based national distillers, suppliers and brokers.

"The general idea is it's mostly about consumer education," said Carrie Tellefson, who represents D.R.A.W. Given there are about 450 types of spirits on the market, some costing $30 or more, the bill would allow consumers a chance to try new spirits in a very controlled environment.

Rusty Figgins, owner of the Ellensburg Distillery, said the pilot project would be a "fabulous way" for Washington-based craft distillers to get the attention of consumers.

If the bill is enacted, Black Heron Spirits and Portworks in West Richland and Blue Flame Spirits in Prosser would have another way to market their products as well.

Both distilleries opened their doors in September 2010. Neither could be reached for comment late Friday.

HB 1202 was modeled on a similar bill the Legislature passed a few years back that created a pilot project to allow beer and wine sampling in grocery stores, Tellefson said.

The pilot project would run Sept. 1 through Sept. 1, 2012.

Representatives of distillers would serve the samples. Each must be one-quarter ounce or less. No one would be served more than one ounce of samples per day.

The state Liquor Control Board would choose 30 locations for the pilot project. Board members must consider the location's proximity to places of worship, schools and public institutions as well as data on motor vehicle accidents nearby.

Places of worship, schools and public institutions within 500 feet of a proposed location would receive written notice of proposed samplings. Additionally, the chosen locations may only advertise an event within the store.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, is one of three co-sponsors of the bill.

When approached by D.R.A.W. representatives, "we thought it was an interesting idea and the Liquor Control Board thought it was a good idea and we thought it's good for business."

Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, and Rep. Luis Moscoso, a Democrat who represents an area north of Seattle, also sponsored the bill.

Hunt said the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Affairs held a public hearing on the bill Wednesday. About a half-dozen people spoke, all in favor of the bill, he said.

He expects committee members to decide within a couple weeks whether to vote it out of committee.

To become law, the bill also would have to be passed by the state Senate and then signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.