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December 11, 2013

VAN HOY: Antiquated Hoosier ways slow to vanish

— Huber’s Starlight Distillery has a nice, shiny still, ready to crank out spirits to its loyal, thirsty customers.

Owner Ted Huber plans to add another one now that a new law is in the books, and that’s good for business and tourism in Southern Indiana.

In short, House Enrolled Act 1293 provides artisan distillers with the same opportunity that small breweries and wineries already had — to bottle their products and to sell them by the glass.

Until now — Huber’s just secured its artisan distiller’s permit — microdistillers could only sell to distributors, limiting their options and hurting profit.

“I have one customer in the state of Indiana: my distributor. And that limits me,” Stuart Hobson, founder of Heartland Distillers, told the Institute for Justice website before the new law took effect July 1. “I [run] an Indiana company, and there should be no reason why I can’t compete with all the other Indiana alcohol producers.”

Hobson, and Huber — who lobbied for House Enrolled Act along with State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany — are right. But there was no reason or logic that it took years and years for the state to allow people making spirits to sell directly to customers.

At the very site in Starlight where Huber’s will soon sell vodka, it sells wine and farm products to its loyal patrons and visitors alike. It’s one of the biggest tourist draws in Southern Indiana, with more than 550,000 visitors annually. With the new products — vodka, gin and whiskey — on the way, Huber thinks as many as 100,000 more a year will visit.

So what took Indiana so long?

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for Hoosiers to ask this of their state government, or themselves. Or, just ask Huber, because he’s been down this road before.

The business has been able to distill one product since 2004 — brandy — but even that step took a lot of behind-the-scenes work by Huber and his family.

“Producing brandy is no small task and being the first to walk through this process in the state of Indiana was not without its share of frustration,” reads the history of the Starlight Distillery on Huber’s website. “Our Master Distiller Ted Huber and his co-owner Greg Huber spent about two years researching and working with our legislators in Indianapolis to pass important legislation that would allow us to produce both wine and brandy. Once this legislation was passed, the lighter side of distilling began in the rolling hills of Starlight.”

So, in essence, the Hubers have had to fight twice — and for years — to sell something that became legal again with the end of prohibition in 1933.

Think for a second about that logic, and I’ll use the newspaper business as an example.

What if the News and Tribune could not sell the paper it prints locally at its offices? What if we could only sell it to a middleman, who then sold it to convenience stores?

That’s what Huber’s was facing before House Enrolled Act 1293.

And that’s just one of Indiana’s boneheaded Blue Laws.

Here’s another: You still can’t get carry-out beer or liquor from retailers in Indiana on a Sunday.

Do you know how many states have the same restriction? Zero.

Brewpubs and wineries — like Huber’s — can sell their product for carry-out on Sunday, but if you want a bottle of hard liquor for your Sunday holiday party, you have to think ahead — or cross the river into Louisville.

Liquor stores, for the most part, have been fighting the implementation of Sunday sales for a variety of reasons, but it mainly boils down to competition. That isn’t to say liquor stores are incorrect when they point out oddball Indiana laws related to their business.

Those include that liquor stores can’t sell gum or cold sodas inside the store.

There’s another item — a much bigger-ticket one — that people have to cross the river to buy on a Sunday because of a dumb law — vehicles. By Indiana law, automobiles can’t be sold on a Sunday.

Why you ask? Well, the basis is religious reasons.

Now some people may be convinced that imbibing spirits is the devil’s work, but I doubt there are many who think that buying a Chrysler pleases Satan.

Here’s who is pleased — Kentucky auto dealers who can and will sell you a car if you chose to buy one on a Sunday. Indiana is missing out on those sales, and that’s just moronic.

The point is that Indiana has some really ridiculous laws on the books, or lacks them, as was the case before the July 1 measure took effect allowing Huber’s to move closer to selling its more potent distilled spirits.

What’s as bad is how long it takes for these to get changed once most people agree the wrongs should be fixed.

Thankfully, the distilled spirit issue is corrected, and Starlight can further drive tourism in the area, which helps other businesses in Southern Indiana.

It makes perfect sense, which is probably why it took so long to get through the Statehouse.

Thankfully, Huber and Clere didn’t let the issue die. I raise my glass to them.

— Shea Van Hoy, editor of the News and Tribune, can be reached via email at shea.vanhoy@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2130.

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