Visiting a craft brewery and visiting a craft distillery in North Carolina are vastly different experiences, but that could change this year.

Craft breweries have become community gathering places where you can hang out for hours while sampling unique local beers. The clientele usually avoids drunken misbehavior, so it’s even become popular to bring the kids and let them frolic on the lawn outside.

Because they’re producing liquor, craft distilleries face much more stringent regulations. They can only offer quarter-ounce samples of straight liquor to people who take a tour. That means there’s little reason to hang out at the facility, and if you’d prefer to sample their products in a cocktail, you’re out of luck. You’ll have to buy a bottle and make one yourself at home – and you can only buy up to five bottles per year at the distillery.

State legislators are working to change that. Senate Bill 290, which is moving in the Senate this month, would let distillers play by similar rules as their beer and wine counterparts. They’d be able to serve cocktails to their visitors and sell a larger number of bottles on-site. The bill also removes some hurdles in the ABC system that can make it difficult for distillers to get their beverages in bars and restaurants.

The legislation is a game-changer for the craft distillery business, and more will open and create jobs if it becomes law. Already, North Carolina has gone from having 27 distilleries in 2015 to nearly 80 in 2019, resulting in part from previous law changes. But it’s still well below North Carolina’s 300 breweries and brewpubs.

Predictably, the distillery bill is getting pushback from conservative religious groups like the Christian Action League. They’re worried that by allowing more liquor sales at distilleries, state leaders are taking a step toward privatizing the ABC system, allowing the devil’s drink to be sold without going through a government-run agency.

Some of the same lawmakers who sponsored the distillery bill are indeed pursuing privatization, and restaurant and retail lobbying groups have launched a “Free The Spirits” campaign in support. That measure is less likely to pass this year, and the distilleries aren’t looking to fight the ABC stores that currently sell their products.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at