The debate over Montgomery County’s control of alcohol distribution was reignited on Friday with this Washington Post opinion piece from a member of the county’s Nighttime Economy Task Force and a prominent Silver Spring restaurant owner.
Evan Glass, who served on the Task Force and who is running for County Council in District 5, and restaurant owner Jackie Greenbaum wrote that it’s time to end the Department of Liquor Control’s monopoly on alcohol distribution.
Glass and Greenbaum argued the county’s control model — which dates back to the Great Depression — restricts the variety of wine, beer and liquor county restaurants can acquire. The two argued that this “outdated approach cries for reform,” as it has led to prospective restaurants and other businesses opening up shop elsewhere:
The county could still maintain its stores and liquor distribution for those restaurants and individuals who prefer the status quo, but others who want better inventory management and options would be free to purchase outside the county system. By taking this step, the county can lift a burden from many small businesses and encourage economic growth while increasing consumer options.
Like the rest of the country, the Washington region has experienced a surge of interest in craft beer, small-batch liquor and family-run wineries. But Montgomery County’s top-down system stymies residents and restaurateurs who want to try new products. We know a number of restaurateurs who have chosen to set up shop in other jurisdictions as a result. On the supply side, some producers and importers — especially the small, cutting-edge, boutique or craft makers — don’t sell to the Department of Liquor Control because of its cumbersome procedures and the diminished market for their products in the county.
Kathie Durbin, chief of Licensure, Regulation and Education for the Department of Liquor Control, has a different opinion. Small breweries and wineries in the county can now sell to other restaurants in the county, thanks to state legislation Durbin helped craft.
She said the Department has also worked hard to improve its distribution service and expand the selection of alcohol brands it offers.
“I understand where [Glass] is coming from and what he’s saying. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that people can’t get certain products that they can get in D.C. I don’t think we’d be able to get them even if the Department of Liquor Control didn’t exist,” Durbin said. “There is a state regulation side to this that a lot of people don’t understand. Also, there are some products — small wineries and small batch products — that just aren’t available everywhere.
“The problem is, I think a lot of times we’re comparing ourselves to D.C. I don’t think there’s any market like the Washington D.C. market,” Durbin said. “You don’t want to deregulate so much that there are safety concerns.”
The DLC is projected to make $20.7 million for the county’s budget this fiscal year. That profit has been a major reason why the control model has stuck around.
County Executive Isiah Leggett confirmed as much on Monday, when in an online chat he answered a question about the county’s strict control model of distribution:
This is a unique time in our history to go back and reevaluate the County’s position on liquor control and alcohol distribution. In past studies, the loss of revenue proved to be a difficult hurdle. If there is a model that can feasibly overcome the revenue loss, I am fully willing to consider it. We are looking at commissioning a new study that will address this issue.
Glass and Greenbaum, who owns Jackie’s and Quarry House in Silver Spring, said the millions the county makes in distribution doesn’t take into account “the economic energy that would be freed by easing control, which would attract new business and expand the county’s tax base, and a fee structure could be imposed to recoup some of the lost revenue.”
Durbin said as a Silver Spring resident and former bartender in Bethesda, she understands what restaurants face. The DLC has been behind a number of alcohol law changes for Montgomery County that because of state law, must be passed in Annapolis.
This year’s General Assembly passed measures to allow microbreweries in Montgomery County and allow those microbreweries to sell directly to other restaurants in the county. The county has licensed two such new facilities so far — Baying Hound Aleworks in Rockville and Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring.
The law would also allow existing restaurants that brew their own beer — such as Rock Bottom in Bethesda — to sell their products with growlers or even six-packs.
Durbin said it’s unclear if there’s a market for such products.
She also said DLC is unveiling an improved online ordering system that will make it easier for restaurants and alcohol sellers to see what the county has available in its warehouse. DLC this year lowered the cost of special orders.
“With any type of alcohol laws that are state laws, it’s difficult to keep up with the trends that are constantly moving,” Durbin said.