2013-05-31 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Still waiting
By Al Diamon

A few weeks ago, I wandered into In’finiti, a new brewpub and distillery on the Portland waterfront. I wasn’t looking for a topic for a political column. I was looking for a beer.

I hate it when politics intrudes on happy hour, but that’s the price I pay for being a journalist and not having to get a real job. Because in addition to a fine IPA, In’finiti was having a special on governmental stupidity.

The pub has a two splendid looking stills, capable of turning out its own whiskey, gin, vodka, rum and many more exotic liquors.

Unfortunately, capability is one thing, but legality is quite another.

While Maine law allows In’finiti owner Eric Michaud to make beer and sell it directly to his bar customers, doing the same with spirits is not permitted. As Michaud discovered to his dismay, he can’t simply keep track of how much alcohol he distills and send the state a check for taxes, as he does with his beers. That would be much too easy.

Instead, state statutes require Michaud to bottle his beverages, truck them to Augusta, sell them at wholesale prices to the monopoly that owns all distribution rights for liquor – and then buy them back at whatever markup a bunch of government bureaucrats decide is appropriate. Only then would he be allowed to shuttle the stuff he made back to Portland and sell it to his pub’s patrons.

And just to show the regulators have an interesting (some might say bizarre) sense of humor, he has to pay immediately for the booze he buys back, but the wholesaler has 30 days to settle up with him. In other words, he loses money on the deal. After Michaud explained this to me, I needed a drink. Or two.

Luckily, his beers are excellent and come in a wide range of styles, from exotic Belgian ales to traditional German lagers to a British mild to the aforementioned American IPA. His cocktail list is extensive and innovative, often using liquor from other Maine distilleries to fill the gap left by overregulation. And the food was no disappointment, setting new standards for the term pub grub.

I’d have had a great time if I hadn’t been so annoyed.

For all the talk I’ve heard from Republican

Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond (in whose legislative district In’finiti is located) about making state government more accommodating to small businesses, there’s no evidence of it here. Instead, there are costly, time-consuming, outdated, anticompetitive and irrational barriers to engaging in commerce.

Michaud has spent a large amount of money on his stills and other hardware. He’s dumped serious cash into his bar’s d├ęcor. He employs a bunch of people, not only bartenders and wait staff, but the highly skilled personnel who make the beer and (eventually) distilled products.

Those latter positions are manufacturing jobs, the kind of employment every politician is always claiming Maine needs more of.

Michaud could be excused if the first whiskey he sells is called Red Tape Rye or Bureaucracy Bourbon. He can supplement the top shelf with Government- Controlled Gin, Overregulated Rum, Administrative Aperitif and Nobody Told Maine They Repealed The Volstead Act Vodka.

The state’s absurd rules for distilleries are part of a long history of impeding alcohol production. In the 1980s, one of the pioneers of modern Maine beermaking found his every effort to set up a brewery thwarted by the overseers of morality – even though his plans were well within the law.

He once told me the official in charge of approving his project informed him, “This isn’t going to happen. Not on my watch.” When the would-be brewer asked why, the pompous twit replied, “Because I don’t like it.”

Maine’s earliest brewpubs faced similar intransigence. One owner told me, “It would have been easier licensing an opium den.”

With small distilleries, the scrutiny became even more intense. “The feds weren’t much of a problem,” one liquor manufacturer said. “The big delays were with the state.”

The reason, of course, is taxes. Maine levies a hefty duty on alcohol and wants to make sure none of that evil stuff is used for pleasure until an intense level of pain has been endured. That’s why, when it comes to nationally distributed brands of hooch, so many of us take our business to New Hampshire, where they’re happy to siphon off a few million in profits from the idiots next door.

That option isn’t available to those of us who’d like to try In’finiti’s offerings. Instead, Maine regulators have allowed us to stare at a pair of inactive stills for several weeks, while Michaud tries to find a way to make his business plan work.

The good news is that by the end of the month, he says the overburdened booze will finally have completed its pointless round trip to Augusta and will start to trickle out. At which point, the not-so-free-enterprise system can finally begin to function.

It’s enough to drive me to drink.

Or it would be if that weren’t illegal, too.

Take your shot (and a beer) at me by emailing aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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