A lobbyist for Ole Smoky Moonshine, a distillery in Gatlinburg, could have caused the delay of HB 102, which would allow leaders of Chattanooga Whiskey Company to make their product in Hamilton County.
But co-sponsor of the bill Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, said Thursday that—although he doesn't make predictions—he doesn't think the bill is in danger of failure. But leaders needed more time to work through proposed amendments.
Carr and Joe Ledbetter, co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey, speculated that a lobbyist for Ole Smoky Moonshine is seeking to kill the bill by amendment.
"The lobbyist is advocating the adoption of amendments that essentially makes the bill ineffective," Carr said. "You can kill a bill by vote or by amendment."
There are five amendments proposed that would make the bill inoperable, Carr said.
"There were nine amendments offered, only one of which we need to accept, which is my amendment that defines the times of operations and what they call distance requirements between the distillery and houses of worship and schools," Carr said.
Ledbetter said Thursday he was disappointed about the delay.
"We wish it was not being rolled," he said as news of the bill's delay came from Nashville to Chattanooga. "We're a little confused with what's going on. But it was rolled for the purpose of taking care of some amendments that have been added or suggested."
Dozens of Chattanooga residents gathered at Blacksmith's at about 11 a.m. Thursday to watch the vote on the bill.
When HB 102 came up, leaders rolled it to the end of the agenda, but some area residents still waited in hopes of a vote.
By about 1:30 p.m., it became evident that the bill would be taken up later.
"[The law would affect] the entire state," Ledbetter said. "It affects Ole Smoky Moonshine because it allows competition to move in next door."
Ledbetter said that a husband-wife pair run Ole Smoky and Davy Crockett's Tennessee Whiskey, which is near the Gatlinburg distillery.
Ole Smoky Moonshine leaders have run ads in their region opposing the legislation.
According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, Joe Baker, who operates the distillery, ran ads saying lobbyists were trying to "sneak" the bill through the Legislature.
"We don't have a lobbyist," Ledbetter said. "They've got a lot more money than we do and a lot more that they think [they have] to lose. They lose a monopoly in Gatlinburg."
Owners of Ole Smoky could not be reached Thursday afternoon for comment, and a marketing leader for the company said all comments on the issue go through the owners.
If the bill makes it through the entire legislative process to become law, the manufacture of liquor would be allowed in parts of Hamilton County that already allow operating liquor stores and liquor-by-the-drink sales.
Last week, the state Senate passed the legislation. Now, House members must approve it so that it can be sent to Gov. Bill Haslam for his approval.
The bill is expected to be taken up again next week. Until then, Chattanooga Whiskey leaders wait patiently, Ledbetter said.
"We have a master's degree in patience," Ledbetter said.
And, although the team has a plan B if the bill doesn't become law, Ledbetter said he prefers to think about the original plan to be able to distill in Hamilton County.
The team already has plans for a Southside distillery, and if the bill becomes law, he is hoping that the distillery will be up and running by January or so.
"I want to go sooner than later ... but we want to do it right," he said.
And for Ledbetter, it was moving to see so many people come out and support the project.
"We are going to rally again," he said. "We truly believe that the way to change laws is to go to the people. It feels good; it feels like family is coming out [to support us]."
A little more than a year ago, Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant founded the Chattanooga Whiskey Company.
Their product is sold in both Tennessee and Georgia, and the product has drawn strong local support that area residents voice, in part, via social media, according to Nooga.com archives.
But—even though the product bears a local name—it must be produced in Lawrenceburg, Ind., because it's currently illegal to make it in Hamilton County.
A 2009 law allows Tennessee counties where there are both operating liquor stores and liquor-by-the-drink sales to produce liquor.
And although Hamilton County meets both those requirements, at the time state leaders passed the law, officials decided to opt out and continue to prevent liquor manufacture in this area.
In November, members of the Hamilton County Commission agreed to sign a letter to send 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.
Recently, a group called Let Hamilton Distill has emerged. That group is not connected with leaders of Chattanooga Whiskey, but some local residents have speculated that the group is trying to kill the bill.
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