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Alaska Legislature

Juneau wrap-up, part 3: Lawmakers fix a looming threat to Alaska’s craft distilleries

The Alaska Legislature passed dozens of bills in its final week in Juneau — including more than 20 on its last day alone.

The barrage of votes ran for more than 10 hours in both the House and Senate, making it difficult to keep track.

Now that the dust has settled on the session, we're looking back at some of the last-minute legislation you may have missed. Over the course of the week, we're examining bills that could affect Alaskans' day-to-day lives — where they smoke and drink, when they go to the doctor and how they pay for clean-energy upgrades like solar panels.

[Read the other stories in our recap: Health care price transparency | Smoking ban in bars, offices]

Heather Shade mixes a cocktail at the Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines. (John Hagen Photography)

Officials charged with enforcing Alaska's alcohol laws took the state's craft distillers aback last year when they issued a memo: Distilleries, in their tasting rooms, should only be selling their liquors straight — no mixed drinks or cocktails.

Regulators pointed out that state law only allows distillers to sell up to three ounces of "the distillery's product," without speaking directly to cocktails or other types of drinks. Distillers had interpreted the law as allowing them to serve mixed drinks, and some had been doing so for years.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, through regulations, tried to block the distilleries from serving cocktails and mixed drinks this year, though its initial effort was thwarted when the state botched the public notice process.

Then, on the last night of the session, the House and Senate passed legislation to fix the distilleries' problem. It would add two relevant sentences to existing law, one of which says that distilleries can combine their products with other ingredients.

Without the fix, distillers were planning to file a legal challenge to the new restrictions, said Rob Borland, who owns Ursa Major Distilling outside Fairbanks.

"It would have pretty much killed our business," Borland said. The fix to the problem, he added, is welcome, even if it's "kind of a shame that it took so long."

Lawmakers did not resolve a broader, acrimonious fight about alcohol, in which Alaska's bar owners are pushing for tighter limits on the sales of drinks at craft breweries and distilleries.

That dispute, which sank a broadly supported overhaul of the state's alcohol laws, will have to be resolved by a future Legislature.