- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - For the past 30 years, ordering a cocktail in South Carolina has been similar to ordering a drink on a plane: The liquor is poured from the same 1.7-ounce minibottle.

“It’s just like the airlines,” said Carol Molnar, 58, here on vacation from Ohio and ordering a drink from a poolside bar. “Anytime I fly, I’ve decided there’s no reason to fly sober.” She raised her glass. “Same here.”

The minibottle is more than a quaint Southernism; a relic of the old wet vs. dry debates, it’s written into the state’s constitution, leaving South Carolina the lone state in the country to forbid bartenders from serving “free pour” drinks out of full-sized bottles.

But this month state legislators moved closer than ever toward ending the minibottle era, a cultural shift some compare to the Confederate flag’s removal from atop the statehouse dome.

“We’re on the edge of a cliff, getting ready to fall over into free pour,” said state Rep. Bill Cotty, a Republican sponsor of the repeal bill.

Asked why it has been so hard to round up political backing for a change, Mr. Cotty laughed. “It’s taken 100 years for us to work on that flag,” he said, “so give us a break.”

The minibottle was mandated when the state legalized liquor-by-the-drink in 1973. It was assumed smaller bottles better bridled a customer’s alcohol intake.

But now, as laws against driving under the influence have tightened, the standard shot size nationwide has shrunk to 1.25 ounces. So South Carolina bartenders pour the nation’s stiffest drinks, by nearly half an ounce.

That has prompted the state’s Baptist Convention to join a minibottle repeal coalition that includes the tourism industry, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a bipartisan majority in the General Assembly.

The alliance has worked. After years of attempts to repeal the minibottle law, both the House and Senate have bills pending to put a referendum making minibottles optional on the 2004 general ballot. The measures did not come to a final vote before legislators adjourned this month, but one or the other is expected to pass when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

“Forty-nine other states and the rest of the civilized world manage to get by with free pour,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, Republican co-sponsor of the bill. “Right now, it’s just us and the airlines.”

Even minibottle supporters, a dwindling group led by the state’s 58 liquor distributors licensed to sell the little bottles, sound resigned to defeat.

“The change momentum is in the air,” said Lock Reddic, president of Green’s Beverage Stores, which has three distributorships in Columbia. “We’re fighting an uphill battle.”

The minibottle law made sense to many when it was inaugurated. In the first place, the smaller-is-better theory mollified religious conservatives reluctant to support any liquor legislation. Liquor supporters then pushed to enact the law as a constitutional amendment.

Lots of bar owners like the minibottle. Inventory is a breeze — one shot, one bottle — and the help can’t overpour or hand out free drinks, unless they want to pay for them out of their own pockets. Everything is accounted for.

It’s also tied to an easy-as-pie tax-collection system, which generates about $20 million a year, funding alcohol- and drug-abuse programs. A single government agent each month collects a 25-cent-per-bottle tax from the state’s four wholesalers. Compliance is virtually guaranteed, and bar owners never have to deal with it.

This taxing method is the chief reason some legislators still oppose a minibottle repeal. They worry that with a free-pour setup, the state could too easily be duped.

It would get nothing, for instance, from an on-the-house round, or get tax from one drink during two-for-one specials, causing revenues to sink. A study of the economic effect done at the University of South Carolina concluded that an added 5 percent sales tax on bar tabs would be revenue-neutral, but doubters are not convinced.

“If you believe that, you can jump off the Brooklyn Bridge,” said state Rep. Herb Kirsh, a Democrat and vocal repeal opponent.

For every minibottle advantage, many bar owners say, there’s a drawback.

Drink potency is one. New or out-of-state customers are often not aware of the minibottle’s added pop. Like those who crafted the original law, they assume the smaller container means a smaller shot. But two minibottles now equal nearly three standard drinks.

Still, many South Carolinians remain skeptical that anything will change.

“When South Carolina grasps onto a tradition, it doesn’t let it go,” said Ralph Bristol, a Greenville radio talk-show host. “It doesn’t have to make sense; there doesn’t have to be logic behind it. If that’s the way it is, then that’s the way it needs to stay.”

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