Gentry Lassiter is ready.

Soon, he’ll pry apart the handmade pallet-board counter at his Knightdale rum distillery and overhaul the front room from a bare-bones retail space into a cozy lounge. The home of Lassiter Distilling Company will, almost overnight, become more than a distillery. It will become a cocktail bar. 

If a bill making its way through the General Assembly becomes law, the same could soon happen at every other distillery in North Carolina. They would no longer be cavernous warehouses where booze tourists gawk at large metal vats and take communion-sized sips of room-temperature spirits. Just like the state’s breweries, liquor-makers would have a place to showcase their products—and for the state’s burgeoning craft spirits industry, that would be a game-changer. 

“Our business model will change fairly dramatically,” Lassiter says. “Right now, we’re primarily a tour location and an attraction, not really a hangout spot. We’d like to change that.”

As the INDY reported in February, distillers have been pushing back against North Carolina’s liquor regulations, which restrict on-site sales to five bottles per year—until recently, the limit was one bottle per year—and, under a rule the ABC Commission began enforcing this year, force distillers to reach a certain sales threshold to hold their place in state’s warehouse, making it more difficult for smaller distillers to gain a foothold in the market. 

Despite the state’s restrictions, the number of North Carolina distillers has grown from just eight in 2010 to more than eighty now. And while a poll earlier this year found that a slim majority of North Carolina residents want to do away with the ABC system, the state’s Distillers Association says reform, not abolition, is the answer. 

Senate Bill 290 aims to do just that. It would remove the on-site bottle-sale cap at distilleries, allow them to serve mixed drinks along with wine and beer, and give them the ability to offer tastings at ABC stores. Meanwhile, HB 536 offers a broader set of reforms, including allowing the sale of alcohol at university sports games and on trains and ferries. 

As state representative Chuck McGrady, a Henderson Republican who has long sought to liberalize liquor laws, puts it, the bills will “bring [North Carolina] into this century.”

“We’ve done that with respect from breweries, wineries, and cideries, and we’re now moving more toward craft distilleries,” says McGrady, who sponsored HB 536 (and if he had his druthers, would do away with the ABC system altogether). “I think both bills will live through the process and perhaps will be combined when they both cross over into the other chamber.” 

The  ABC Commission told the INDY it does not “take policy positions on pending legislation,” though it’s working with lawmakers to clarify how the bills would affect its operations. 

“We certainly support all North Carolina industry partners—distilleries, wineries, breweries—and look forward to continuing our good relationship with them,” ABC Commission spokeswoman Kat Haney told the INDY in an email. 

The Senate is expected to take up SB 290 Tuesday afternoon, while the House Finance Committee will consider HB 536 Wednesday. Both bills could be signed into law by the end of the summer.

Lassiter’s banking on it. He’s already started renovations at his distillery, which he says would be the first cocktail bar in Knightdale if the changes go through (there’s an Applebee’s and a sports bar, but not much else). 

“We need a new bar, a new counter for people to come in that’s a little more permanent and stable,” Lassiter says. “The current counter, it’s a well-made counter, but we built it out of the pallets that our equipment came in on. It’s on wheels.”

Rim Vilgalys, who makes Lithuanian liqueur out of his Durham distillery, is also eyeing changes to his “lounge,” which bears a greater resemblance to a Soviet bunker than a cocktail bar. 

While The Brothers Vilgalys is just on the other side of the railroad tracks from downtown, it feels a world away from the Bull City’s thriving food and beverage scene. With the legislative changes, he hopes to add staff to serve drinks—as well as more products. 

“It would change really everything. It would bring our focus back to the tasting room we have and to set up a cocktail bar,” Vilgalys says. “We’d be able to be a better part of the community around us. If we’re able to host an environment where people can come and hang out, then we can really start to participate in the great scene in Durham.”

McGrady, who is not seeking reelection, says the bills will provide not just flexibility for the state’s distillers but an economic boost for an industry struggling to turn a profit in a field dominated by billion-dollar corporations. 

And that could mean more jobs.

State representative Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat, is also sponsoring McGrady’s bill. She sees this as a measured step forward, while still maintaining safeguards.

“It’s no surprise to anybody who is paying attention that we have a proliferation of distillers and craft breweries in North Carolina,” Butler says. “Creating these fictional roadblocks or impediments is not helpful. We need to help [distillers] boost their business, not get in the way of it.” 

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at 

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