Restaurants and bars get more options to buy booze

Staff writerMay 1, 2013 

Until last year, restaurants and bars had one choice from which to buy liquor: state government.

That changed when voters privatized the system, but the choice for many drinking establishments is now mainly between just two wholesalers. Initiative 1183 did allow bars and restaurants to buy from stores instead of the wholesalers, but only 24 liters at a time.

If a judge’s ruling Monday stands, the bars and restaurants won’t have to worry too much about that limit any more. They will be able to make many purchases of liquor and wine on a single shopping trip, as long as each one is just 24 liters.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Erik Price invalidated a state Liquor Control Board rule that had limited those 24-liter sales to one per day.

Price wrote, “It is not the board’s place, nor this court’s, to infuse a policy into statutory language that is not there, even if that policy improves the statute,” in a precursor to a formal order.

An assistant attorney general said she hadn’t yet talked to the board about whether to appeal the ruling, which also found fault with procedural aspects of the board’s rule-making but declined to overturn any other rules challenged in the lawsuit by Costco, groceries and restaurants.

That coalition celebrated but said another obstacle still stands in the way of bars and restaurants buying liquor at stores – a 17 percent fee the group is lobbying state lawmakers to eliminate in their special session that starts May 13.

The Association of Washington Spirits and Wine Distributors said in a statement that it is looking at its options after the court ruling, including an appeal.

“If the court’s conclusion is correct, then Costco snookered voters by including a meaningless restriction in the language of the initiative,” John Guadnola, executive director of the distributors group, said in the statement.

Bruce Beckett, a lobbyist for the Washington Restaurant Association who speaks for the grocery-and-restaurant coalition, said the 24-liter limit was an attempt to reach a deal with wholesalers.

The wholesalers, Southern Wine and Spirits and Young’s Market Co., ended up fighting I-1183 but have kept a major role in the market, partly because the 24-liter limit on restaurant and bar sales doesn’t apply to distributors.

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