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Guy Rehorst, owner of Great Lakes Distillery, is no stranger to lobbying to change the law. In 2010, Rehorst advocated for making it legal for distilleries to serve and sell spirits on site in a bar-like setting that's referred to as a tasting room.
In order to get the law changed, he had 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.
Today, after four years of work, Wisconsin moved closer to making it legal for distilleries to give away free samples of spirits in liquor stores and grocery stores. The "tasting bill" was passed this afternoon by the State Assembly and will soon move to the Senate.
"Beer and wine have had that privilege, but until today, spirits have not. As distillers, we're not asking for preferential treatment, just a level playing field with beer and wine producers," says Rehorst. "We started working on this a few years ago, but it was strongly opposed originally."
Rehorst says it was tough to get the law pushed through, but he was able to help do it after years of lobbying and negotiations. The strong opposition came primarily from The Wisconsin Tavern League and MillerCoors.
"We finally came up with a plan that worked for those who were previously against it," says Rehorst.
Originally, Rehorst wanted to offer 1.5-ounce samples but eventually agreed to .5-ounce samples. To better understand the liquid amount, keep in mind a typical shot in a bar is about an ounce.
"We can offer a sample that’s about half the size of a ‘normal’ shot," says Rehorst. "We reduced the amount of the sample to one-third of what we were looking for originally, but in doing that, we got the support we needed."
In the past, Rehorst says misinformation suggesting that havoc would ensue if people were allowed to sample "hard alcohol" also prevented distilleries from serving in stores.
There were a few retail exceptions to the law that prohibited spirit samples in grocery stores and liquor stores. Metro Market, 1123 N. Van Buren St., had both an on-premise and off-premise liquor license which allowed spirit companies, including Great Lakes Distillery, to legally serve samples.
It is already legal for distilleries to serve in-store samples in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota.
If the bill passes in the Senate – and Rehorst is very optimistic that it will – Gov. Scott Walker will need to sign off on it as well.
"I have no reason to believe this won't happen," says Rehorst.
This is good news for all of the state's distilleries, including Central Standard Craft Distillery, 613 S. 2nd St., which opened in 2014.
"As a small craft spirits producer this change would be very positive and exciting for our business. We will hopefully be able to responsibly sample small amounts of our craft spirits directly to the end customer at the store. It will allow us to better engage our community and tell our story," says Central Standard's Evan Hughes.
Rehorst plans to serve samples of his products every weekend if possible. He says he plans to have three or four bottles on hand for samples, so people can try whatever spirit they are in the market for.
"If someone is looking at rum, they can sample our rum and so on. This is good for us, of course, but it’s also an effort to support our retailers who stock our products to help them sell our products," says Rehorst.
Rehorst founded Great Lakes Distillery in 2004, but due to numerous obstacles was unable to begin distilling until 2006. In doing so, he established the first beverage distillery in Wisconsin since Prohibition.
Overall, Rehorst is pleased with the outcome of his latest lobbying efforts.
"It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it’s a lot better than we had before," he says. "The fact I will soon be able to introduce consumers to our products is a good thing for us and for the retailers and because of that, I'm very happy."
What do you think? Should distilleries be allowed to serve samples in grocery and liquor stores?
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.