As a bill on the issue moved a step further in the Legislature Wednesday, leaders of Chattanooga Whiskey Company distanced themselves from a group that wants a public vote on whether liquor can be manufactured in Hamilton County.
"We are not a part of this at all," co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey Joe Ledbetter said Wednesday. "I care about our legislators who have worked tirelessly to get this thing done for us because the people voiced their opinion. The last thing I want is for them to think we are trying to circumvent what they are doing."
—Leaders of Let Hamilton Distill have to get a certain number of signatures and submit it to county commissioners, who would then decide whether to send the matter to the Election Commission for a referendum, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said.
—In related news, leaders of Gatlinburg's Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery have been running ads in their region opposing the legislation. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, Joe Baker, who operates Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, ran ads saying lobbyists were trying to “sneak” the bill through the Legislature.
The Let Hamilton Distill coalition launched March 22 with the mission of letting Hamilton County voters decide whether to allow the manufacture of liquor here, according to its website.
Spokesman for the coalition Chris Smith—who worked for Mayor-elect Andy Berke when he was in the state Legislature—said the group supports making it legal to manufacture liquor in the area because it will boost the economy, create jobs and draw tourists.
In 2010, voters in Cannon County gathered signatures for a petition that prompted a referendum—a public vote on an issue, he said.
"It passed, and now, they have Short Mountain Distillery," Smith said via email. "Why not get that going in Hamilton County?"
Volunteers, including owner of Southern Burger Company Christian Siler, recently went door to door to gather signatures for the petition.
A 2009 law allows counties where there are both operating liquor stores and liquor-by-the-drink sales to produce liquor.
Hamilton County meets both of those requirements, but at the time state leaders passed the law, local officials decided to “opt out” and continue to prevent liquor manufacture.
After considering options, such as a referendum, Chattanooga Whiskey leaders asked the County Commission to pass a resolution saying that liquor should be allowed to be manufactured here.
Commissioners approved of the idea and sent a letter to state legislators asking them to approve the manufacture of liquor within areas that already allow operating liquor stores and liquor-by-the-drink sales.
On Wednesday, the bill that would make that possible passed through the state House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
Smith said that his group is "keeping an eye on the bill."
"But our approach is effective because it doesn't have to worry about what's going on in Nashville," he said. "State law gives us this referendum option, and we're taking that option."
Let Hamilton Distill
Members of Let Hamilton Distill took out a full-page ad in the Times Free Press in the past week in support of their mission.
And Smith said his group has more than 1,500 signatures on the petition. He also said it is a citizen effort and that he is "working for the people of Hamilton County."
Smith said he lives in Chattanooga, but his company, Little Smith Strategies, is based in Antioch, which is just outside Nashville.
The local physical address listed on the coalition's website is a UPS Store.
But Ledbetter said that he wants to distance the business from the group because they are not going about making the change in the appropriate way.
"This isn't the way our local leadership wants it done," he said.
Anyone who wants to support the Chattanooga Whiskey effort should email or call their legislators about the matter, Ledbetter said.
Some people have noted the seemingly odd timing and approach of the new coalition. The group didn't coordinate with leaders of Chattanooga Whiskey Company and didn't participate in past discussions on the issue.
"All that happened was the commissioners decided to send a nonbinding letter to politicians in Nashville," Smith said. "That hasn't accomplished anything. Our approach is to take this to the citizens."
Smith said that his background in organizing benefits this effort and that he is not working on behalf of a client. He said a few different sources paid for the newspaper ad.
"Chattanooga's seen a lot more grassroots movements in the past few years (mayor recall, for example), and people are starting to see how much of an impact citizens can make," he said.