The Tennessee attorney general has issued an opinion about liquor production in Hamilton County that dampened Chattanooga Whiskey Company owners' hopes of making their product here.
After learning of the attorney general’s opinion, the company's owners initially had plans of starting a petition with the goal of triggering a ballot referendum, or public vote, to allow whiskey production in Hamilton County, co-founder Joe Ledbetter said.
But after talking with state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, which is in Rutherford County, Ledbetter thinks there is another option.
If Chattanooga Whiskey leaders can get the Hamilton County Commission to pass a resolution saying that liquor should be allowed to be manufactured here, then approval can be sought through the state Legislature.
“Our preference is to go through this way,” Ledbetter said of working through the County Commission and then the state Legislature.
It’s quicker and cleaner than petitioning for a referendum, he said.
Carr sponsored a law that passed in 2009 that allowed counties where there are both operating liquor stores and liquor-by-the-drink sales to also produce liquor.
Hamilton County allows liquor and liquor-by-the-drink sales, but at the time that law passed, local leaders decided to “opt out” and continue to prevent liquor manufacture.
But Carr said that if county leaders adopt a resolution, he or another state representative could take the issue to the Legislature. Carr has helped two other Tennessee counties through this process, he said.
“When we passed this bill [to allow counties to manufacture liquor], this was a jobs bill,” he said. “This little bill has done more for Tennessee tourism and the economy that didn’t cost the state a dime.”
And Ledbetter has also said that bringing the whiskey distillery to Hamilton County would be an economic boost that creates jobs.
County Commission response
Commissioner Fred Skillern said he doesn’t know anything about the situation and isn’t going to comment until there is something officially before the commission.
Commissioner Joe Graham also said he hadn’t yet seen the attorney general’s opinion, but that he is open to hearing more.
“I want to hear both sides and do what’s best for the county,” he said in a returned phone message to Nooga.com. “I’m not for it, but I’m not against it. I want to go into this thing open-minded so that everybody has the opportunity to make their case, and I can make an educated decision with the facts that I get presented to me.”
Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, who is a Chattanooga native, answered a question that state Sen. Bo Watson submitted at the request of Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.
The question was whether Hamilton County could permit the production of liquor by means of a County Commission resolution instead of a referendum.
The answer to that was no, according to the attorney general’s opinion. Carr said he agreed with that opinion because the state Legislature has to approve the change, not only the County Commission, or there has to be a referendum.
The attorney general outlined details about the 2009 law and census data because Hamilton County does already meet one requirement of the law—there are both operating liquor stores and liquor-by-the-drink sales.
But there is a subsection of that law that outlines population requirements according to the 2000 federal census.
So, the attorney general said, based on that question, there needs to be a referendum.
A state spokeswoman said that the attorney general’s opinion is similar to getting legal advice from a lawyer—no one is required to follow the advice, but it might be a good idea to do so. But she said some local governments have gone against opinions.
Watson said he doesn’t have an opinion on the situation either way and that he was just doing his part to help local leaders get a question answered.
“I am the chairman of the Hamilton County delegation,” Watson said. “The opinion was requested by the county attorney, Rheubin Taylor. I do not have an opinion. At the time the request was made, I believe the County Commission was trying to decide on what the process was for them. Without bias, I submitted the request.”
Chattanooga Whiskey bottom line
In April, Chattanooga Whiskey’s 1816 Reserve and 1816 Cask, which is 113.6 proof, came to stores across Tennessee.
Since then, Chattanooga Whiskey has come to about 15 states.
Ledbetter and his business partner, fellow whiskey enthusiast Tim Piersant, announced the start of their company last November.
Ledbetter said the product is the people of Chattanooga’s whiskey. He wants the County Commission to know that the local people seem to want Chattanooga Whiskey.
“The bottom line is we need to make sure that the commission knows that the people want this,” he said. “It’s up to the commission to pass the resolution to take it to Nashville. We just need the blessing locally. But the great news is we can do this. That’s the end goal.”
Updated @ 12:32 p.m. on 10/09/12 to add a photo of Chattanooga Whiskey's new design.