The ABC's of N.C. liquor laws | Annual Manual | Indy Week
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The ABC's of N.C. liquor laws 

The state has moved from a past of wine and moonshine to better beers. But there are still those ridiculous ABC stores.

North Carolina was once a wine making giant. It was America's leading wine producer in the 1850s with over 25 wineries and extensive vineyard plantings. Americans couldn't get enough of the grapey, sweet wine named after the wild acreage along the Scuppernong River of the coastal plain.

But North Carolina's wine licenses were rescinded with the onset of the Civil War. And, as the conquering forces would have it, these documents were not renewed after the conflict. (Why do feelings still run so deep concerning that war? This is just one gnawing little snip off the top of a huge vine.) Yet, wine later reemerged to bolster our state's economy, and by the 19th century's end, North Carolina had regained a big chunk of the United States' business. The "Virginia Dare" brand was a best-selling, nationwide sensation. At the same time, abstinence movements were growing, especially at home. By 1909 the state enacted a total prohibition of alcohol. National prohibition in 1920, plus the continuing "dry" powers of religion and local government even after prohibition's repeal in 1933, assured that North Carolina's wine industry would not truly rise again until a few short years ago.

It was only in the late 1980s that new wineries began to sprout in earnest, as state legislators finally gave up on the idea of punishing citizens by controlling their alcohol use. Until very recently, a four-term state representative, the Rev. Coy Privette of Kannapolis, waged a one-man crusade against all things alcoholic. If he had had his way, we would still be "brown bagging" our wine to restaurants.

When I retired from the retail wine business in 1997, there were eight wineries in the state. Now there are 48, with five more on the way. In October 2003, Gov. Mike Easley approved legislation allowing the direct shipment of wine from other states into private consumers' homes. The bill also allows North Carolina's wineries to ship their goods directly to states that will allow it. The laws, the wineries and the attitudes today are the fairest and brightest they have ever been.

The tale of liquor is at least as intriguing as that of wine, because North Carolina became one of America's hotbeds for illicit alcohol. George Washington had his own still at Mount Vernon, and what used to be a private matter became a public battle after the Civil War. From 1867 onward, moonshining grew and flourished as a reaction to the federal government's new taxation of liquor. A natural resentment to the tax and the sense of government interference (especially a Northern government) set up a conflagration that, even today, still has a few embers glowing.

Roanoke, Chowan, Wilkes and Johnston counties all have their hall-of-fame moonshiners who made tons of whisky while staying a step ahead of the "revenooers." "Mountain dew" flourished for more than 70 years, even though the South went dry long before the advent of national prohibition.

Amazingly, by 1877, most of North Carolina's western counties, where most of the moonshine was manufactured, had legally forbidden alcohol consumption. Soon began a much bigger game of getting whisky past the "blockade" of law officers and into the hands of those who felt it their right to continue drinking. That tradition gave rise to NASCAR, but that's another story.

National prohibition actually caused a sharp rise in demand. With the get-rich-quick practices of gangsters in big cities, bootleggers turned to using unscrupulous means and substances, including cheap wood alcohol (methanol), which would eventually lead to the death of 10,000 thirsty but unsuspecting imbibers.

Prohibition's end set up something that, in its day, was forward-looking and intelligent. The first alcohol beverage control (ABC) store in North Carolina was established in 1935 in Wilson. A state historical marker recently has been placed at this original site. Robert Boykin of Wilson was quoted as saying (and I'm not making this up),"There's been some mighty fine 'shine made in this county by my family, so it's a way to recognize people in that industry." Although visions of Robert Mitchum barreling down country roads in the 1958 film Thunder Road add a certain bravado and romance to the quasi folk legend, the ABC stores were the death knell for interstate big business in the moonshine industry.

Unfortunately, the state of North Carolina is still in the booze business. As a result, there are fixed prices at each store on a very limited selection of items. Consumers can order, for example, a favorite gin or rum, but the minimum order is a full case. Millions of our tax dollars are taken out of state each year, especially to Washington, D.C., where prices are competitive, the help knowledgeable, and the inventory vast.

What a farce to be in a business where advertising is non-existent, lest the state be liable for possible damages! I once spoke at a session of the North Carolina House concerning how much potential tax money our state was losing annually. But the status quo remains today, while our property and sales taxes continue to rise. Privatization would be such a boon to our state coffers; perhaps it's time for a new crusade. We might not need a lottery after all.

Our state has a slight history of beer production dating back to 1773, when the Single brothers in Winston-Salem's Moravian settlement opened the state's first brewery. But theirs was a lonely enterprise and only two other breweries, opened by Carl Clauder and David Blum, joined in the enterprise. Beer was simply not what the locals craved in early times (port, Madeira and hard liquor dominated). By 1850, only Clauder's brewery remained in business. In this regard, the Civil War, temperance leagues and prohibition had little effect on the state's economy.

By 1981, the entire United States had only 42 breweries, perhaps leading musician David Moulton to ask:

"Why is American beer served cold?"

"So you can distinguish it from urine."

But times changed formidably, and with hundreds of microbreweries now dotting the landscape, American beer makers have revived the concept of flavor. North Carolina has joined the revolution with more than 40 breweries currently open for business.

I recently sampled an excellent Duck Rabbit milk stout, which was round, malty and robust. It was recommended by Julie Bradford, beer connoisseur and editor of All About Beer magazine, one of America's top "suds" publications, which happens to emanate from Durham. Bradford has been involved in the "Pop the Cap" lobbying effort for the last 2 1/2 years. North Carolina was one of only six states that still had a 6 percent limit on beer's alcohol content. The state legislature raised the alcohol limit on beer to 15 percent just weeks ago. The doors are now open to artisanal beers from around the globe--breweries that make beer as carefully as winemakers ply their trade. It is a grand opportunity to taste the best the earth can offer. These beers are almost like a meal, filling and rewarding in a complex sensory way. I recently drank a McChoux Belgian Ale in a New York restaurant; at 9 1/2 percent alcohol, it was a heavenly concoction of licorice, malt and molasses elements. All I needed, or wanted, was one glass.

At $6 and up for a bottle, these fine ales, porters and stouts will not be high on the list of college students nor at weekend tailgate parties. When I asked Bradford about North Carolina's beer history, she succinctly replied: "North Carolina doesn't have a great beer history--our greatness is in the future!"

  • A history of moonshine and state-run liquor stores

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