New bills call for mandatory training for all alcohol servers, looser restrictions on distillers 

Bar Laws and Liquor Legislation

click to enlarge Scott Blackwell is cofounder of High Wire Distilling Co. and president of the South Carolina Craft Distillers Guild

Jonathan Boncek file photo

Scott Blackwell is cofounder of High Wire Distilling Co. and president of the South Carolina Craft Distillers Guild

Some big changes could be in store for South Carolina's purveyors of beer, wine, and liquor. Among the slew of new bills introduced in the Statehouse are proposals to require mandatory training for alcohol servers, as well as plans to lighten restrictions on distilleries. So as these new bills make their way from the Capitol steps to the local dive bar, let's take a look at what lawmakers are hoping to achieve and how these changes could affect your nearest watering hole.

First on the docket is the South Carolina Alcohol Server Training Act, also known as "Alli's Law" in memory of Alli Cousins, a high school senior who died in a car accident after she was served several drinks in an Upstate bar.

Under this plan, everyone serving alcohol for on-premises consumption would be required by law to undergo specialized training and earn a permit before they are allowed to pour another drink. Training courses would be conducted online or in person by approved organizations and cover everything from state alcohol regulations to methods of managing "problem drinkers." The course would be at least four hours long and conclude with a test. A score of 70 or higher is needed to receive a permit, which would be valid for three years.

According to Senate Judiciary officials, 15 states currently have similar requirements for alcohol servers. The proposed bill introduced by Sens. Luke Rankin and Brad Hutto would affect more than 6,000 locations throughout South Carolina that currently sell alcohol. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are approximately 35,000 servers in the state — all of whom would need to pay as much as $50 for the training course and $15 for the permit, payable to the state Department of Revenue.

Jeremiah Schenzel, beverage director for Scarecrow and Feathertop and veteran bartender, says he can see the good and the bad aspects of the proposed bill. In addition to his concerns over which groups are permitted to oversee the training course, Schenzel points out that servers will find themselves missing a day's pay in addition to possibly having to foot the bill for training. He also believes that much of the information presented in the class may be redundant for those employed in the food and bev industry.

"You hope that employers are hiring people who know to be critical thinkers when it comes to knowing who and who not to serve," says Schenzel. "It's built into the hiring culture around here. The days of thinking that anyone can be a bartender or server are largely coming to an end."

Also up for consideration at the Statehouse is a bill that would allow distilleries to serve mixed drinks and ease restrictions on the amount of alcohol that can be served. The proposed changes are considered good news for those in the business of crafting their own spirits in Charleston.

"What we've been paying attention to is what's happening nationally with other states and mainly what I'm looking at is I want to see positive changes for us to be able to basically pay our bills in the tasting room," says Scott Blackwell, cofounder of High Wire Distilling Co. and president of the South Carolina Craft Distillers Guild. "Right now it's a hardship to have a tasting room in some ways. You love to have it because of the marketing aspect, but, to be honest, right now it's dead. There's no one in here. At three o'clock today there may be 20 people in here and there may be two people. So having an employee in here sitting around for $15 an hour just doesn't make a lot of sense when we're selling tours for $5 a piece. It's just hard to break even."

Tastings in South Carolina can only be offered in conjunction with a guided tour of the distillery between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Under the current restrictions, distilleries holding tastings are limited to three half-ounce samples of straight alcohol to customers. The amendments to the law being considered would not only allow for mixed drinks to be served, but also increase to amount of alcohol that can be served to each customer.

According to Blackwell, there are 34 distilleries currently operating around the state. While High Wire has received plenty of national attention — recently being named a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional — Blackwell hopes that the new regulations being considered will allow the distillery to offer a wider array of services to draw more customers into the local business.

"The idea isn't to become a bar. We're still closing at 7 p.m. We still close on Sundays. But it gives us some latitude to do some educational things, as well," says Blackwell, who hopes to pair High Wire's spirits with mixers from local manufacturers during tastings. "For example, if we wanted to do a bar class, we could have a mixologist from around town come in and do a class and show people how to make five versions of a gin and tonic and they could sample that cocktail during that class. Now the law doesn't allow that."


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