Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Kentucky Keeps Getting Wetter

As the Lexington Herald-Leader reported Sunday, the Commonwealth of Kentucky used to prohibit alcohol sales in most of its 120 counties, but that has changed. The recently-compiled map shown above is already out-of-date. In elections last week, voters approved legal alcohol sales in Cumberland and Metcalfe counties, while Williamsburg and Mayfield residents voted for expanded sales.

Although Kentucky is the country's leading whiskey producer, the state tends to be very conservative and has had a fraught relationship with its signature industry. Unlike California, which keeps its state alcohol taxes relatively low to encourage its wine industry, Kentucky has some of the highest retail alcohol taxes in the country.

It is no coincidence that the counties and cities with large Catholic populations make most of the bourbon and are solidly wet. Alcohol-phobia is an affliction that mostly affects Protestant Evangelicals.

The engine driving legalization is primarily economic. In even the driest counties it is legal to possess and consume alcohol, only sales are prohibited, so drinkers simply make their alcohol purchases in the nearest wet jurisdiction. Dry counties lose that business and the associated tax revenue. Restaurants struggle to survive in places where alcohol sales are not allowed as that business also goes elsewhere. Tourism, Kentucky's third-largest industry, suffers where alcohol cannot be sold.

On the map, you will notice that there are three main classifications, not two. The third is 'moist' counties. A 'moist' county may be dry but with one or more cities within its borders that are wet. Kentucky law also allows counties to authorize sales in certain restaurants and other venues, such as country clubs. This ability to authorize limited sales in restaurants without allowing bars or package stores became law in 2000. It dealt with the 'not-in-my-backyard' issue for many.

(Go here for a county-by-county list describing the moisture level in each.)

One of the allowed exceptions has been sales at wineries. Kentucky's rapidly growing craft distillery industry is looking for the same consideration, although currently most distilleries are in areas that are already wet.

Limited sales have limited benefits in terms of economic development, so the trend to full legalization has also picked up steam in recent years.

Carol Beth Martin, malt beverage administrator for the state, said this to the Herald-Leader. “In my opinion, as places nearby go wet, people are able to see that, if regulated appropriately, alcohol sales can be a benefit for a community as opposed to a nuisance,” said Martin. “Alcohol sales oftentimes bring increased economic development to the community as well as provide an increase in tax revenue addressing quality of life issues in their community.”

One aspect not often discussed is bootlegging. Every dry area has them. Bootleggers are people who buy alcohol legally in wet locations, transport it into dry ones, and sell it illegally at a considerable markup. Bootleggers, of course, do not bother with laws. They are always open and will sell to anyone, including underage drinkers. Bootleggers tend to be behind-the-scenes supporters of the status quo in dry counties.

Although it has made progress, Kentucky still has a long way to go, but after 80+ years the long shadow of Prohibition continues to recede.


Erik Fish said...

Real bootleggers? People still call them that? That seems crazy, somehow almost nostalgic. Does the state handle liquor enforcement, or does every juridiction decide for itself whether they want to go after these people, and whether the hassle of prosecuting is even worth it?

MF said...

The term "moist" refers to those territories which have alcohol sales by the drink in restaurants. Thus a "wet" city does not make a county "moist." In fact a city itself may be "moist," as Danville (where I live) was for several years before going fully "wet." Of course, all this talk of wet and moist might further upset the Puritanical among us while generating chuckles from those whose senses of humor align with Beavis and Butthead.