"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com – brought to you by Absolut, Avion, Fireball, Pama, Red Stag and 2 Gingers – is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs – including guides, the latest trends, bar reviews, the results of our Best of Bars poll and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
Most of the time, laws are in place – or not in place – for good reasons. But once in a while, laws need to change.
Three local entrepreneurs felt this way, and in order to fulfill the vision of their business, went through the proper channels to change the law.
When Guy Rehorst moved Great Lakes Distillery from Riverwest to its current home in Walker’s Point, he wanted customers to have the chance to enjoy his libations on site. However, as a distillery and not a bar, this was not legal.
"State law then said that a distillery owner may not have an interest in a business that has a bar or tavern license," says Rehorst. "We wanted people to see our distillery and be able to try our products – before the change we couldn't even pour samples at the distillery. Sampling our products, trying them in cocktails is the best marketing a small producer with few marketing dollars like us can do."
So, Rehorst tweaked the state law.
"We changed the definition of what a distillery can do. The law still says a distillery cannot have an interest in a liquor license, but it now states that a distillery can sell its own products at its distillery," says Rehorst. "This means we can sell our products but no one else's."
The process, however, took years. Finally, Rehorst says he was able to convince the Joint Finance Committee at the Capitol that it was in the state’s best fiscal interest to collect sales tax on distillery sales.
"They saw the value and included it in the budget which was passed in early 2010," says Rehorst.
Having the support of assembly representative Pedro Colon and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce's Government Affairs Director, Steve Baas, was integral to the outcome.
"It was really worth the effort, it gave our business more cash flow and expanded our customer base tremendously by allowing us to build awareness of our products to more people," says Rehorst. "We now get an average of 500 people a week visiting the distillery, sampling our products and increasing their awareness of our products and craft distilling in general."
Rehorst is currently working on changing another law that would make it legal for people to sample spirits in grocery and liquor stores like it is already possible to do with beer and wine.
"Over the last four years, there have been at least three attempts by the spirits industry to get this law changed," says Rehorst. "Unfortunately opponents of allowing spirits tastings like to spread misinformation. Typically they like to paint a picture of people going on drunken rampages in stores; they claim that havoc will break out when people are doing ‘shots’ in the super market aisles."
It is already legal in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota to sample spirits in stores.
"As distillers, we’re not asking for preferential treatment, just a level playing field with beer and wine producers," says Rehorst. "It’s a shame we can’t in our own home state."
Derek Collins, co-owner of the Pedal Tavern, worked more than a thousand hours to have the law changed recently so people can legally drink alcoholic beverages while on the vehicle.
The new law – which excludes commercial quadricylcles from the open intoxicant rule – took effect on Jan. 1, 2014.
"We wanted to operate under the same laws as a limousine or motor bus, but because we are a green company and our vehicles are pedal power, we did not qualify as either a limousine or a motor bus because we lacked a motor," says Collins. "We could have changed our vehicle and added a motor, but that defeats the whole purpose of our company."
The Pedal Tavern started out allowing beverages on board, but in October of 2012, a new law took place making it illegal. In the following season, Collins says they lost 50 percent of their customers.
"In 2013, we had a lot of people call and ask if they could have a couple cold ones while they pedaled. We informed them that they were able to ride, but not drink on board. The majority of our potential customers were upset and asked if we were doing anything to allow beer on board, and that's when we started to brainstorm about how we were going to lobby to change this state law," says Collins.
Collins says the most difficult part of the process was finding the right law maker to help with the bill.
"We heard through the grapevine that we should approach the chair of the small business committee, Jeff Stone. I reached out to him, and he set up a meeting the next week," says Collins. "We met Jeff and he was extremely helpful and down to earth. He asked us a lot of questions and told us that he would be happy to take on this bill."
Collins says that Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League of Wisconsin, was also very helpful in getting the law passed.
"This was something that our customers wanted. We love being a part of the community and bringing joy to so many people," says Collins.
Bryan Atinsky, co-owner of the Riverwest Filling Station, 701 E. Keefe Ave., changed the law in 2013 that would allow the sale of growlers in Milwaukee.
"After having settled on buying the property, I went to the alcohol licensing office at Milwaukee City Hall. I discussed about the business I was opening up and stated that it would be a restaurant, pub and also sell growlers of all our 30 different draught beers," says Atinsky.
The licensing officer did not know what a growler was, and so Atinsky says he tried to explain it to her, but she said that he should email her about it instead.
"After sending them an email about growlers, they replied that according to Milwaukee ordinance 90-31, I am not allowed to do growlers, because that would be refilling of a bottle," says Atinksy.
Atinksy looked up this ordinance and saw that it was in a section about fraud and the selling of illegal intoxicants, and had nothing to do with the filling of growlers which was already allowed for brew pubs and breweries.
"According to any rational interpretation of this ordinance, it was put in place to stop bars from fraudulently filling one bottle with another liquor – to take a top shelf bottle and put in a cheap rail version of the liquor, or to water liquor down – and had nothing to do with the honest and historically-accepted filling of a container of beer for people to take and drink elsewhere," says Atinksy.
With the support of his alderman, Nik Kovac, Atinsky petitioned the city to change the wording of the ordinance and won.
"This wasn’t only a benefit for my business, but gave the opportunity for all like business people in Milwaukee to help grow a market for quality craft beer in growlers," says Atinksy. "I am very happy with the rational change in this ordinance and I am glad that I was able to help the city as a whole by facilitating their ability to have third-party growlers in Milwaukee."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.