South Carolina law makes the lush life difficult with &r; Lilliputian liquor bottles


GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Mike Liedberg can usually tell if a patron in his bar is not from South Carolina. "They'll order something we can't make or be real surprised by the price," he said, "and we'll have to explain that it's because we have to use mini-bottles."

South Carolina is the only state to require restaurants and bars to serve hard liquor from the miniature bottles used most often by commercial airlines.

Now, 18 years after mini-bottles replaced a bring-your-own-bottle law, the South Carolina Restaurant Association, hotel owners and others have begun efforts to legalize standard liquor bottles that would be used by bartenders and bought by consumers as they are in other states.

But in a state that designates milk as its official drink and teetotaling Protestantism as its unofficial religion, any talk of liquor laws is bound to generate heated debate.

Even though the issue is not likely to be decided this year, an odd array of opponents -- from preachers to liquor manufacturers -- are working to derail it.

"It is a terrible idea," said Jerry Greenbaum, who owns three liquor stores and a restaurant in the state. He says he fears that as the state loses revenue from taxing mini-bottle sales, it will increase taxes on all liquor.

Bob Jones III, head of the evangelical Bob Jones University here, said, "I don't see how anyone who loves his fellow man and believes in the sacredness of life and who fears God could not oppose any effort to make liquor more easily obtainable and plentiful."

But the restaurant association contends that mini-bottles are too expensive and give customers stiffer drinks than they get in other states. And, said Tom Sponseller, its executive director, strict liquor laws hamper efforts to strengthen tourism, which, at $1 billion a year, is the state's largest industry.

At the association's request, a General Assembly committee is examining a revision of the liquor law, which would require amending the state constitution. Such action requires approval by voters and two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly.

Until 1973, anyone wishing to drink hard liquor in a restaurant had to supply it. But restaurant owners and others persuaded voters to change the law by arguing that brown-bagging caused raucous behavior and that patrons drank too much to avoid having to take home partly filled bottles.

"It was really tacky," said Nicholas Sipe, executive director of the South Carolina Alcohol Beverage Control Commission. "Everybody would stagger home."

zTC Although the commission has not taken a position on the restaurant association's proposal, Mr. Sipe said the mini-bottle system had been flawless. "The consumer gets exactly what he or she paid for, and the taxes are very easy to collect," he said.

There is a 25-cent tax on each mini-bottle, which is paid by the eight wholesalers in the state. Last year, South Carolina collected $16.5 million on the sale of 66 million mini-bottles. Half of the money goes to drug and alcohol abuse programs and public education, the other half to cities, counties and the state's general fund.

Restaurant and hotel owners said that if the law were changed, the state could continue collecting taxes from wholesalers and make up for lost revenue by increasing the tax on all liquor.

Most states tax liquor served at restaurants at a higher rate than liquor for home consumption. South Carolina is no different.

On a liter sold for home use, the tax is $1.32. The same quantity in mini-bottles carries a $5.96 tax, said Mr. Sponseller of the restaurant association. Because of the high taxes, the profit margin on liquor is slim, a source of annoyance to owners, especially national chains, said Bruce Nelker, the general manager of the Airport Marriott Hotel here.

There are also a number of drinks that bars cannot or will not make, like a Long Island Iced Tea, which includes gin, vodka, tequila and rum, said Mr. Liedberg, who is the supervisor for the 17 Applebee's restaurants in the state.

A mini-bottle for each ingredient must be used, and all of the liquor must be given to the customer. "You'd end up with a 24-ounce drink," he said, "and it would cost $13." Even highballs, which include only one liquor, either whiskey or brandy, are expensive at $3.25, as against $1.85 in Atlanta, he said.

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