After nearly an hour of discussion on the state House floor, legislators approved a bill that will allow leaders of Chattanooga Whiskey Company to make their product in Hamilton County.
"We are not going to disappoint," co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey Tim Piersant said. "I guess a big question is 'Once [the legislation] gets done, what is Chattanooga Whiskey actually going to do?' And we've got a lot of good people around us that want to see everything happen as Joe and I would like, and I don't think we will disappoint."
HB 102 passed with 57 House members in favor and 31 opposed. Pending a formality, the bill will head to Gov. Bill Haslam to be signed into law.
Sponsor of the bill Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, said that the Senate bill had a flaw, which will be corrected, and then Senate members will adopt and confirm the House's version.
If Haslam signs the bill, the manufacture of liquor will be allowed in parts of Hamilton County that already allow operating liquor stores and liquor-by-the-drink sales.
The Chattanooga Whiskey team already has plans for a Southside distillery. Construction on that should take 10 months to a year, they said.
Co-founder Joe Ledbetter said the distillery will be good for the local economy. It will draw tourists, create jobs and create new local revenue.
Jokingly, he said the business will make him a lot of money, and at the viewing event—which Ledbetter's wife and baby daughter attended—some people joked that the child's future hung in the balance of this vote.
But Ledbetter soon got serious and said that he and Piersant have a passion to give back to their community, and getting their business going will allow them to do that.
"We are really passionate about giving back ... [to] entrepreneur programs, to programs that teach children and high-schoolers and even early college [students] that drinking and driving, that abuse of anything is not good," Ledbetter said. "We feel this is an opportunity to do something really great."
Members of the House had to go through 12 amendments during the discussion of the bill. Some of them were withdrawn, which drew cheers from the crowd that gathered at Community Pie to watch the vote.
Carr said last week, when the bill got rolled, that those people in opposition were trying to kill the bill by amendment and make it ineffective.
A lobbyist for Ole Smoky Moonshine, a distillery in Gatlinburg, is thought to have been behind some of the opposition because the bill could potentially give that business competition and ruin its monopoly, Carr and Ledbetter said.
Some legislators, such as Rep. Richard Floyd, said they opposed the bill because it would mean that a distillery could go up next door to a church or school.
To that, Carr responded, "The representative from Chattanooga is only technically correct ... [the Senate] made an error and nadvertently left that out. Amendment 8 restores the distance requirements currently in statute."
Amendment 8 is the amendment the Senate now needs to correct, and it gives local governments the ability to set rules about how close a distillery can be from a church or school, he said.
The discussion amongst members grew heated at times, and at one point, Carr asked if Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, wanted to remove Cocke County from the bill.
This drew smirks from both Carr and Faison.
"I thought because he was protesting this particular bill ... it was only appropriate that I give him the opportunity to remove [Cocke County] if he so desired," Carr said.
Faison said that leaders aren't dealing with wine or beer. They are dealing with "high-power corn in a jar," and he didn't think that the Legislature should be making that decision—it should be made by local governments.
But Faison said that he didn't make that motion to have that county removed from the bill, and Carr then withdrew his proposed amendment, which seemed like a political jab or joke toward Faison.
But later, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, took issue with Carr's previous comment to Faison about removing his county.
"Since the sponsor seems to be so jovial about taking counties out, I make an official motion to roll the bill," Hill said, adding that he wanted to give other representatives time to take their counties out of the legislation.
That motion got a second but failed to get enough votes to move forward.
Floyd called himself "a mule at the Kentucky Derby" without a lot of political capital but continued to express his opposition.
"I can only appeal to your conscious," he said. "We will never answer to any man or woman on this floor—one day, we are going to answer to God for every vote we make."
Floyd eventually said that Carr wasn't being truthful about where this bill came from. Carr explained that it came from county leaders and residents of Hamilton County.
"Just as sure as there is a cow in Texas, this bill didn't come from Hamilton County," Floyd said.
After the vote, Carr said he didn't appreciate being called a liar.
"I hate that my colleague from Hamilton County took issue [and tried] to impugn my integrity—calling me out as a liar," Carr said via phone. "That's unfortunate. It's never happened. He was trying to impugn my integrity without understanding [the bill]."
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