Originally created 09/10/04

Alcohol vote may confuse



AIKEN - When South Carolina voters go to the polls in November, more than a presidency and a U.S. Senate seat will be at stake.

Ballots in the Palmetto State also will feature a referendum on whether to abolish the constitutional requirement to pour liquor by the drink from a minibottle, ending South Carolina's status as the last state in the nation to use the twist-top glass container common to airliners and hotel minibars.

But there's a problem with the wording of the referendum aimed at amending the state constitution: It never mentions the minibottle by name. Tom Sponseller, a lobbyist for the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, says that's just one of several factors that could confuse voters.

"Most of the public doesn't realize the minibottle requirement is in the constitution," said Mr. Sponseller, whose group represents hotels, restaurants and bars throughout the state. "And the referendum question doesn't help, because it never mentions minibottle."

Voters who do realize South Carolina's alcohol requirement is a constitutional matter might have the mistaken notion that if the referendum passes, the minibottle will be dead. Not so, says Mr. Sponseller, who briefed a group of Aiken restaurant and bar owners Wednesday and a similar group in Greenville on Thursday.

"If the people say 'Get it out of the constitution,' the General Assembly might say 'We like minibottles - we're going to stay where we are,'" he said. "Even with that, we'll be better off than where we are. If they ever stop making minibottles, we could be a beer-and-wine-only state, and the governor and legislators couldn't do anything to change that."

There's another thorny question the referendum won't solve - how to make up for the 25-cent tax riding on every minibottle. That results in a considerable premium for state revenue collectors. Last year, minibottle sales accounted for $18.1 million of the state's $52.4 million in alcohol tax revenue, said Danny Brazell, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Revenue.

Restaurant owners such as Sam Erb, the owner of the West End Bowery in Aiken, favor a legislative initiative floated in the state House this year. If it becomes law, the bill will allow bars and restaurants to choose whether to pour from a big bottle or continue using the minibottle.

"It's giving them the choice - that's the whole thing," said Mr. Erb, who played host to the meeting of Aiken-area bar owners briefed by Mr. Sponseller.

The drive to end the minibottle mandate has drawn the support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Baptist Convention. Supporters say the use of minibottles results in far stronger cocktails in South Carolina.

While most bars and restaurants are now pouring a smaller drink - 1.25 ounces, on average, rather than the customary 1.5 ounces of a traditional shot glass - South Carolina minibottles contain 1.7 ounces of alcohol. All of it has to be poured or the bartender could be fined, Mr. Erb said. As a result, the average South Carolina cocktail contains 36 percent more alcohol than the same drink poured in Georgia or other free-pour states.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.

MINIBOTTLE

Money

South Carolina's constitutional requirement that liquor by the drink be poured from a minibottle has resulted in a windfall of tax revenue for state coffers. A liter bottle of liquor sold in a store nets $1.42 in taxes; the same liter of liquor sold in 20 minibottles brings in $5.92. Voters will consider a referendum in November that would eliminate the minibottle requirement from the constitution.

Source: Hospitality Association of South Carolina, South Carolina Department of Revenue.