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Distillers stepped up during the pandemic. Now we need help to survive | Column
Florida's laws prevent local distillers from selling liquor in ways that other states allow.
Kozuba & Sons Distillery in St. Petersburg. (Times)
Kozuba & Sons Distillery in St. Petersburg. (Times)
Published Aug. 18, 2020

Every month, shipments from my three favorite California wineries arrive at my house. If I wanted, I could go online and with a few clicks through a third-party have a craft spirit from Kentucky delivered to my house as well. Yet Florida law bans me from directly shipping the rum or flavored vodka our new distillery makes to customers in Tampa, Orlando or anywhere else.

L.J. Govoni is co-owner of Big Storm Brewing and Distillery in Clearwater and a founding member of the Florida Craft Spirits Association.
L.J. Govoni is co-owner of Big Storm Brewing and Distillery in Clearwater and a founding member of the Florida Craft Spirits Association. [ Big Storm Brewing and Distillery ]

That’s an unfair system, and it’s particularly unfair during the coronavirus pandemic that has reduced customers at restaurants and closed down bars and tasting rooms that don’t serve food. We need access to our customers to survive, and that’s why Florida craft distillers are asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to issue an executive order to allow us to ship our spirits directly to consumers. It could be temporary to help us get through this crisis, and perhaps the Florida Legislature could take a look next spring at overhauling the state’s outdated alcoholic beverage laws that discourage entrepreneurship and create an unequal playing field.

Florida distilleries pitched in to help the state through this crisis. Urged on by federal and local agencies, we joined hundreds of craft distillers across the nation this spring and started producing hand sanitizer instead of bourbon, rum and other products. At Big Storm Brewing, we saw an opportunity to help the community and expand our business beyond our craft beer. We invested significant capital to install three stills, buy large blending tanks, a packaging line, and other equipment needed to efficiently produce and package both hand sanitizer and craft spirits. We were happy to pitch in and help.

Now Florida’s craft distilleries need help. The demand for hand sanitizer and the prices have plunged as traditional producers have cranked up their efforts. Some distillers have sanitizer ingredients or the finished sanitizer sitting in warehouses. At Big Storm, the demand for our sanitizer has dropped significantly as the market became flooded with cheap, and sometimes harmful products, from Mexico and China. Meanwhile, many restaurants remain closed and those that are open cannot operate at full capacity. Bars that were opened for a short time are closed again, and our businesses won’t survive if we can’t reach our customers.

California and some New England states are among those that are temporarily lifting their bans on distilleries shipping their spirits directly to consumers. All we are asking is for Gov. DeSantis to do the same in Florida. We were encouraged that the governor recently told reporters in Jacksonville that “it seems like it would be something that would be reasonable.’' Now we ask him to follow through with an executive order.

Allowing Florida’s craft distilleries to directly sell our rum, vodka and whiskeys to consumers would save jobs. It would bring in additional state tax revenue, perhaps as much as $5 a bottle. And it would benefit customers who are following the advice of health care experts and shopping from home when they can.

If I can have wine from California delivered to my house, Florida’s craft distilleries ought to be able to directly sell our spirits to our customers. We stepped up during this crisis and produced hand sanitizer. Now the state needs to step up and help us survive.

L.J. Govoni is co-owner of Big Storm Brewing and Distillery in Clearwater and a founding member of the Florida Craft Spirits Association.