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What Happens When 30 Craft Distillers Descend on Capitol Hill? What Happens When 30 Craft Distillers Descend on Capitol Hill?

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What Happens When 30 Craft Distillers Descend on Capitol Hill?

The booze will flow in an effort to keep taxes low.

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(AP/Mark Humphrey)

After a night of drinking dozens of thimble-sized plastic cups of booze—quinoa bourbon, chocolate fudge brownie liqueur, maple-infused vodka—my brain is mush. I vaguely remember being told last night that Danes call a hangover "carpenters in the forehead" but can't remember who told me, with all the hammering behind my eyebrows. A pack of matches with the words "Death's Door" just fell out of my pocket. I want to go there.

The liquor lobby, whose craft distillers were in town this week for a charm offensive, speaking with lawmakers about keeping their taxes low, achieved at least part of its goal. I, for one, was clearly a little too charmed at their tasting event.

 

Here is the easy part of being a liquor lobbyist: getting people to like your product.

But 30 distillers didn't come to the nation's capital just to give out free samples. With the Hill abuzz about possible tax reform, the distillers want to make sure they're not targeted as a potential source of new revenue. And in the burgeoning business that is craft liquor, they know too well that being liked isn't the same thing as being powerful.

"Sometimes it feels like we are the whipping boy of the industry," said Brian Ellison of Death's Door Spirits (oh, that's where those matches came from!). "There's this misconception that liquor is more evil, and I think that's why it's an easy target for taxes."

 

Ellison and others are quick to point out that when you buy a bottle of liquor from the store, an average of 54 percent of the price goes to taxes and fees.

The main goal of meeting with lawmakers, the distillers say, is just to lay out the facts. To tell them that theirs is already one of the most taxed and regulated products in the country, that they already pay more than their fair share, and to please not be tempted to levy any kind of a "sin tax" on them if/when they are looking for more revenue.

Hours before the tasting event, the distillers spread out across the Hill, meeting with members from their respective delegations. I tagged along with three guys from Tennessee: Phil Prichard, a Neil Young look-a-like right down to the mutton chops and wispy long hair; Andrew Webber, a 38-year old biologist and former dot-com entrepreneur who specializes in "weird whiskeys"; and Andy Nelson, who at 30 is trying to resurrect his great-great-great grandfather's distillery, which closed down due to Prohibition more than 100 years ago.

"I never knew what a lobbyist was until I realized I are one," said Prichard said with a wink as we walked through the hallways of the Cannon House Office Building. Prichard pretends he hates being in Washington, saying he wouldn't live here no matter how much I paid him and that his idea of a traffic jam is when a flock of turkeys crosses the road in Kelso, Tenn. But he knows how the game is played.

 

When we arrive at Rep. Scott DesJarlais's office, there's already a photo on the wall showing Prichard and the House member at a distillery.

"This is all about legitimizing our efforts as an industry," Prichard tells me while we wait for their meeting with a staffer. "Without it, we would just be a rag-tag group of entrepreneurs, but combined, they make a little army of legitimacy. This army can intensify our message to members of Congress and senators."

The group is a bit disappointed that DesJarlais isn't around for the meeting, but it's something they get used to by the end of the day. Of their five sit-downs, not one of them was with an actual member. They are, after all, a pretty small army.

"It's the staff that actually gets things done," Webber said after a meeting with one of Rep. Jim Cooper's aides. That aide described herself as being "eight years away" from her 10-year reunion. 

Now is a crucial time for the craft-distillery industry. A lot has been made about the explosion of craft beer in recent years, and distillers are hoping that their time is next. But they recognize they have an uphill battle. Craft beer's message was an easy one: We're better than the big guys. But in the liquor world, the big guys make some of the finest product around. With craft distilling still a relatively new phenomenon, it could take time for it to get a toehold. And the new guys say they are just hoping that no new taxes or regulations kill them off before they get it.

"Build the business so it can sustain current tax models, I guess," Nelson said. "But the taxes are insane. It's crazy hard to build a business around that, and we're just hoping it doesn't get even harder."

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