By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
It's taken 219 years, but if the Whiskey Rebellion against the Treasury's 1791 tax on local hooch were to occur today, it is very likely that George Washington—who as president sent in troops to quell the outcry—would have been among the protesters. That's because his rye whiskey distillery, just rebuilt at his Mount Vernon home on the Virginia banks of the Potomac River, has joined up with about 25 small craft spirits makers in a new coalition to press Congress to keep taxes low and exports high.
"We are all very worried about taxes," says Fritz Maytag, president of San Francisco's award-winning Anchor Distilling Co. and the owner of Anchor Brewing Co. "We want to be left alone," he adds.
Under the umbrella of the liquor lobby, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Maytag, great-grandson of the appliance maker, created a craft distillers advisory council that is both fighting talk of higher sin taxes—about half the price of a bottle is taxes—and educating lawmakers on the benefits of having a bottler in their backyard. "We're here lobbying for awareness of the fact that there's going to be a craft distillery in every district," he says.
Maytag and nearly two dozen other distillers recently met with House lawmakers and staffers and even shared a shot or two of their products. "We have concerns about getting a fair, competitive playing field for our products," says Scott Harris, a founder of the organic Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. in Purcellville, Va. "We want to be seen as a vital part of the economy instead of low-hanging fruit to be taxed," adds Wes Henderson of Louisville Distilling Co., makers of Angel's Envy bourbon.
What's more, they and the 100 members of the craft distillers advisory council are eager for states to give them the same status as wineries, which can offer free samples and sell bottles.
Despite the rich history of antagonism between the two sides, the lobbyists for the craft distillers are embraced by Congress. Kentucky Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, a cofounder of the new Congressional Bourbon Caucus, says, "I love the little guys." And he promises that taxes won't increase. "Federal taxes are already so high. We don't want to do anything to hurt them," says Yarmuth.
For his part, Yarmuth has a unique way of promoting his state's products to Congress: He keeps 12 bottles of Kentucky bourbon in his office. "Many of my colleagues like to come in," he says, "and wipe me out."