The Lead

Fight over to-go cocktails spills back into Pa. Senate

By: - June 24, 2021 6:48 pm

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In the span of two hours Thursday afternoon, the Pennsylvania House stripped out language approving the private sale of canned cocktails from a bill permanently legalizing to-go mixed drinks, before approving it 170-31.

The proposal now returns to the Senate, which cracked open a three-way political fight between restaurants, the liquor lobby, and the union representing public liquor system employees over whether private alcohol sellers could edge in on a $31.8 million — and growing — market for pre-packaged mixed drinks.

The bill must be approved there, unaltered, to go to Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature.

State Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland, a caterer by trade, and the bill’s prime sponsor, said he did support allowing restaurants, convenience, and grocery stores to sell six-packs of canned cocktails, known in the industry as “ready-to-drink beverages.”

What’s holding up Harrisburg lawmakers from making to-go cocktails permanent?

However, Masser said, the House didn’t have the votes to approve the bill with the small liquor privatization measure. 

“It’s a shame,” Masser said. “It’s moving Pennsylvania into the current century. Like a lot of liquor laws in Pennsylvania, we’re behind the times.”

Under state law, beer distributors can sell brewed variants, such as White Claw. But sales of liquor-based drinks, such as an already bottled Jack Daniels and cola, must go through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, the state-run purveyor of booze, and its state stores.

State Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, who chairs the Senate committee with oversight of liquor issues, added an amendment to allow such potent potables to be privately sold everywhere from beer distributors to grocery stores in the Senate.

The week before Regan added the measure, he held a fundraiser at the home of his brother-in-law Frank Sourbeer, who owns a large Harrisburg-area beer distributor. 

Regan’s chief-of-staff told the Capital-Star the two had not discussed the policy.

The canned cocktails provision led Wolf to threaten a veto, but the Senate passed the bill anyway. It went to the House for further action, where Regan’s changes were reversed.

The bill includes other measures to help restaurants, Masser told the Capital-Star. The bill would allow restaurants with extended outdoor premises to stay that way through the end of 2022. 

Restaurants also could receive unlimited catering permits through the end of 2022, and liquor license holders will have an extra year of safekeeping before a license can be revoked by the board.

In a statement, the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, which represents bars, saloons, speakeasies and watering holes, approved of the new language. The expansion of ready-to-drink cocktail sales to grocery stores and convenience stores, said executive director Chuck Moran, would have hurt such establishments.

Meanwhile, mixed drinks to-go were a lifeline for restaurants during a tough year, Moran added.

“Many establishments took advantage of this opportunity, while many patrons safely enjoyed professionally mixed drinks in the comfort of their homes while supporting their local taverns and licensed restaurants,” he said.

Moran asked the Senate to act before the legislature adjourns for the summer to permanently approve the bill without further changes.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.