Senate panel hosted first hearings on bills

Participating in Monday’s Senate Commerce Committee remote hearing on three alcohol-related bills are, clockwise from top left, committee staffer Cameron Lepine, Chairman Harold French and Sens. Jeb Bradley, Donna Soucy, William Gannon and Kevin Cavanaugh. Members of the public signed up ahead for the Zoom session.

CONCORD — A trio of bills aimed at expanding alcohol sales in New Hampshire served as the first hearings for the 2021 Legislature before a state Senate committee Monday.

State Liquor Commission Chairman Joseph Mollica said one of his top priorities is to have New Hampshire join only six other states that allow direct shipments of liquor to individual homes or businesses.

“We’d like to offer our great values to consumers around the country and here in our state,” Mollica told the Senate Commerce Committee during a hearing held via Zoom Monday.

The plan is to start with the shipments to customers in-state and then get permission to sell to consumers in other states.

“With this legislation (Senate Bill 14), our ability to deliver could launch by the middle of September,” Mollica said.

The idea would be to create “many forward-facing venues” — limited liability companies or other business partners who could fill the orders of liquor sold into other states.

The State Liquor Commission could also become a “fulfillment center” to fill orders for out-of-state membership groups such as wine or whisky clubs.

“We are trying to remain competitive in an ever-changing marketplace. This is the way of the retail future, and we’d like to become part of it,” Mollica said.

State liquor officials estimate this expansion of the business could generate up to $20 million more in total sales and more than $4 million in profits each year.

Through December, state liquor sales have been up 4.3% — $3.1 million over forecast.

Barrels of beer

On Monday, a bill (SB 17) written to permit customers to bring their dogs into outdoor settings at nanobreweries and brew pubs also became a move to help small beer makers expand more affordably.

The amendment, from Sen. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye, would allow these small brewers to contract with a larger brewery to make barrels of thei r recipes off-site.

Bob Levine, owner of Whym Craft and Brew Pub in Hampton, said for his business to expand from making one to seven barrels a week would require an investment of up to $500,000 in equipment.

By contrast, he said, signing a contract to have Great North Ale Works of Manchester make up to 20 barrels would cost up to $10,000.

Currently, only beer manufacturers or those that make high volumes of commercially sold brands can enter into such contracts.

Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, supported the change but said she opposed the original bill regarding dogs in outdoor patios due to concern over hygiene and public health.

Henry Veilleux, a lobbyist representing the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, asked the Senate panel to consider letting restaurant owners decide for themselves whether to allow dogs in outdoor dining areas.

At present, only service dogs are allowed.

Tastings at farm markets

The third bill (SB18), permitting liquor tastings at farmers markets, got the most testimony as several owners of small distilleries said the move would help them grow sales and word of mouth about their offerings.

State Liquor Commission Legal Coordinator Aidan Moore worked with the sponsor, Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, to limit the proposal tor “incubator” distillers that make no more than 10,000 bottles of liquor a year and produce all of it in New Hampshire.

Distillers could offer tastings of up to a half-ounce of liquor per brand.

Greg Meeh of Cold Garden Spirits in Canterbury said distilleries like his now sell their liquor only in their own tasting rooms or at state Liquor Commission-sponsored events.

“This will take pressure off the commission to have to market low-sale products,” Meeh said.

Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy for New Futures, an anti-substance abuse group, opposed the bill, saying it could lead to intoxication for market customers.

“Sometimes the focus is to expand opportunities to make alcohol more accessible, but there is always a downside to that,” Frey said. “You are actually offering anywhere from one drink to several.”

Andy Day, part owner of Doire Distilling in Derry, said small liquor sellers communicate with one another if they spot a taster who seeks to use the event as a way to drink too much.

“We understand the liabilities of serving alcohol, and we take our responsibility very seriously,” Day said. “At the end of the day we want to make sure people are safe and enjoying themselves.”

Remote hearings

Monday’s Commerce Committee hearing was the first of many the Legislature is holding remotely because of the pandemic. All committee members and the public attended virtually via Zoom.

Members of the public who signed up ahead of time with Senate staff were called upon to testify online, and all could view or listen to a live feed of the hearing.

Five Senate panels are hosting hearings on 15 bills this week. All those listings with links to the Zoom sessions are in the Senate calendar at https://bit.ly/38BCunw.