True beer and wine bottle shops will be allowed in Montana for the first time if House Bill 204 finds favor with the 63rd Montana Legislature. The bill, sponsored by Representative Christy Clark, would create a new license category for retail sales and also permit limited tasting events for such shops.
HB 204's new license category would eliminate the requirement to be a bona fide grocery store or pharmacy, but impose restrictions on hours of operation to between 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Persons holding a current beer and wine license for off-premise consumption would be allowed to convert that license to a boutique license.
The new boutique operations would be allowed to hold up to twelve tasting events in a calendar year by paying a $50 annual fee for a tasting events permit. An individual sample could not exceed one ounce and a person could sample up to ten servings at a tasting event. (Do the math, it's an easy one.) Oddly enough, the bottle shop can stay open an extra hour if hosting a tasting event.
While I don't understand the need to treat the hours of operation differently from a grocery store or pharmacy (which can sell beer between 8:00 a.m and 2:00 a.m.) I'm not sure the proposed hours are much of a concern. Simlarly, I'd prefer the number of tasting events be doubled (at least), but the bill would allow twelve more than current regulations.
Unfortunately, the new license sets up a bit of an odd conflict. A place like Toppers' Cellar in Helena would almost certainly convert its license to a boutique license. Doing so would allow such a place to hold twelve tasting events during a calendar year. Conversely, Worden's Market in Missoula - one of the best places in the city to buy beer and wine - could not do so because the new boutique license prohibits a bottle shop from carrying more than $3,000 worth of food items in its inventory. Thus, a place like Toppers could holding tasting events, but Worden's, with its great deli and food market, could not.
HB 204 has been referred to the House Business and Labor committee and a hearing date will be set soon.
Another bill in the drafting process (LC 1125) is tentatively titled "Allow tasting event by limited sellers of wine consumed off-premises." No text is available yet and it will be interesting to see how it differs from HB 204. The title obviously does not mention beer, but perhaps it is intended to address the Toppers/Worden's dichotomy - at least for wine.**
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* Growlers are a different story and may be filled by breweries and establishments with an on-premise license. Certain on-premise consumption license holders may also sell other packaged beer and wine.
** Why do we continue to distinguish between sellers/makers of wine and beer? Can we put the class distinctions to rest, please?