Staff Columnist

Iowa law will make cocktails easier to get

Booze industry expanding into premixed, canned drinks

From left, Honeydew Basil Spritzer, Lime Vodka, Chasing Basil Cocktail, Minty Cucumber Melon Drink, and Thyme Lemondade. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
From left, Honeydew Basil Spritzer, Lime Vodka, Chasing Basil Cocktail, Minty Cucumber Melon Drink, and Thyme Lemondade. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Americans’ drinking habits are changing, and Iowa Code is slowly adapting to accommodate new beverages.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed two bills into law last week that will make boozier drinks easier to get.

Senate File 323 calls for canned cocktails — premixed drinks served in a metal can, up to 15 percent alcohol by volume — to be regulated like beer. Senate File 618 increases the limit on alcohol in beer from 5 percent to 6.25 percent.

Now, drinking establishments with only a beer license — which is cheaper for businesses to obtain than a full liquor license — will be able to sell canned beverages with much higher alcohol content. It’s a win for freedom in Iowa’s rural taverns and watering holes.

The era of a few giant beer and liquor distributors dominating grocery store shelves with limited offerings are long gone. Iowa law is finally catching up.

The craft beer revolution has been well documented during the past decade. Sales from small breweries have boomed, but not enough to offset the decline of traditional domestic beer. That’s left overall beer sales slumping or stagnant.

Americans are thirsty for something new, so the market is diversifying, with a more niche labels gaining greater market share. Some industry observers see trendy spirits and premixed drinks as the next big opportunity for growth.

Canned cocktails such as the ones now defined in the Iowa Code are still too small a market to measure growth in a meaningful way, but a couple other indicators suggest interest in such beverages is strong and growing.

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Sales of craft spirits increased about 20 percent per year from 2012 to 2018, according to the business analytics firm L.E.K. Consulting. Canned wine sales also skyrocketed, from less than $2 million in 2012 to more than $14 million in 2016, according to the consumer research outlet Nielsen.

The allure of handheld, single-serving liquor drinks is easy to understand. For consumers, they offer the ability to load a cooler with more alcohol for picnics, music festivals and other outings. For bars, these products are much easier to serve than pouring and mixing a traditional cocktail.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Iowa Legislature, where the old fuddy-duddy lobby remains powerful, approved the bill to authorize canned cocktails with relatively little dissent.

Among 150 lawmakers, four senators and 27 representatives — near equal part Republican and Democrat — voted against the bill. Lobbyists for the beer industry, eager to claim their own share of the growing craft spirits market, also signed on in support of the legislation.

Professional brewers and distillers have proved themselves to be an innovative bunch, but outdated and puritanical booze laws repeatedly have hampered their growth. Alcohol consumption is one of the most overregulated aspects of American life, but regulators and lawmakers are notoriously slow to change.

There is little thirst among Iowa policymakers for a robust liberalization of liquor restrictions. Instead, lawmakers and regulators have tinkered with the rules in recent years, each time giving Iowa drinkers and sellers a little more freedom to consume as they choose.

Change is coming, but only a canful at a time.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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