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TINY BOTTLES: South Carolina readies for a big battle over them

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TINY BOTTLES: South Carolina readies for a big battle over them
Minibottles of liquor are stocked on shelves at Green's Liquors Wednesday, Oct. 13, in Columbia. South Carolina voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to maintain another of the state's modern peculiarities: the tiny bottles of liquor used in restaurants and bars. AP

COLUMBIA — South Carolina voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to maintain another of the state's modern peculiarities: the tiny bottles of liquor used in restaurants and bars.

South Carolina is the only state in the country that doesn't allow bartenders to pour drinks from regular-sized bottles of liquor. Instead, for every drink, they have to open 1.7-ounce bottles of booze like the ones served on airplanes.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment allowing free-pour liquor say minibottle-only drinks need to go the way of South Carolina institutions such as the Confederate flag that once flew over the Statehouse dome and video gambling machines, now banned from the state.

That would mean drinks will become cheaper and roads will become safer because cocktails and shots won't be so potent, they say.

But opponents argue switching to free-pour drinks will allow unscrupulous bartenders to water down drinks, reduce tax revenues and could open the state's liquor laws to yearly changes at the whim of lawmakers.

"Just because it's different doesn't mean it's wrong," said Suzie Riga, vice president of Green's Liquors, a Columbia wholesaler that sells minibottles to restaurants and bars.

Passing the amendment won't get rid of minibottles completely. Instead, it will allow lawmakers to control liquor laws. Most supporters say the Legislature would act quickly to pass a law that would add larger free-pour bottles while keeping minibottles as an option.

"Consumers will still have a choice," said Tom Sponseller, president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina. "If they like the little bottles, there will still be people selling them."

The minibottle came to South Carolina in the 1970s as part of a compromise that brought liquor by the drink to the state. Those opposed to drinking figured the 1.5-ounce bottles then used would encourage people to drink less.

At the time, South Carolina was one of almost two dozen states using the tiny bottles. But over the years, minibottles increased to 1.7 ounces as the makers went metric and free-pour portions declined to an ounce. That, coupled with increasing costs of the little bottles, led all the other states to go to free pour.

"I think people have been waiting to make this choice for many years," Sponseller said.

The little bottles have created some unique problems for bartenders.

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For example, if you could get a true Long Island ice tea, which is made from five different liquors, it would come out to be a knee-wobbling 8.5 ounces of booze per drink. South Carolina margaritas have to be made with a syrup that tastes like triple sec instead of the real liquor that doesn't come in minbottles. A drink like a white Russian, which requires half as much Kahula as vodka, can't be made right at all.

"It's like baking a cake. All the same portions won't work," Sponseller said.

But Riga said bartenders and liquor manufactures have become creative. Long Island ice tea now comes in a minibottle, and few people can tell the difference in a margarita made with triple sec syrup rather than liquor.

Riga compares a minibottle to a bottle of aspirin. "You wouldn't use it if it wasn't sealed, would you?"

Minibottles are the same way. "When you see that bottle opened, it's clean, it's safe and you know exactly what you are getting," she said.

Supporters of the amendment say much of the opposition comes from distributors and wholesalers who make a lot more money off minibottles than bigger bottles. "And the consumer pays for it," Sponseller said.

Opponents of the amendment argue that tax revenue would fall because the minibottles are taxed so heavily and are easy to keep up with. With free-pour liquor, taxes likely would be charged per drink, and bar and restaurant owners could underreport sales.

And businesses would have to spend a lot of money changing warehouses and liquor cabinets to store bigger bottles, Riga said.

As far as tax revenue goes, supporters cite a study from a state economist that said South Carolina would bring in $172,000 more money with free-pour liquor in the first year and tax revenues likely would continue to increase.

And, Sponseller said, lawmakers are likely to keep minibottles around for those bars and restaurants that prefer them.

So far, the campaign has been quiet, but both supporters and opponents expect a big push of newspaper and radio ads in the final weeks before the election.

Sponseller says a questionnaire sent out by the Hospitality Association two years ago showed about three-quarters of the state's bars and restaurants support free pour.

Riga, whose job brings her to a number of bars and restaurants across South Carolina, said it's mostly big chain restraints, not smaller businesses, that support the amendment.

"It's a unique system," Riga said. "But I think it works the best."

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