Cocktails-to-go are now off the menu in Pennsylvania’s restaurants and bars.
These containers of up to 1 gallon of mixed drinks that patrons could buy to drink off-premises are no longer legal to sell.
Restaurants and bars were only permitted to sell these takeout cocktails through a waiver that was made possible by Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration, but now that declaration has ended.
Tuesday’s certification of election results made official what voters said they wanted in the primary election on May 18, when they voted to limit the governor’s powers in emergencies. With those powers, the state Legislature voted to end the declaration last Thursday.
So that means a return to pre-pandemic days where if you want a mixed drink from a bar, restaurant or hotel with a liquor license, you have to drink it there on the licensed part of the establishment.
There’s more to this story, although it doesn’t necessarily mean cocktails-to-go are guaranteed to make a comeback.
Ready to drink
The Senate Law and Justice Committee, the starting point for liquor bills in that chamber, on Tuesday considered a House-passed bill that would permanently allow cocktails-to-go to stick around.
Before passing it on a narrow 6-5 vote, they amended it to allow for liquor licensees including grocery stores, convenience stores, beer distributors, restaurants and bars to begin selling ready-to-drink spirits-based cocktails for on-premise consumption.
It also would allow hotel and restaurant licenses to sell up to 192 ounces of ready-to-drink products for off-premise consumption while there would be no limits placed on distributors selling these products.
Currently, the state-owned liquor stores have the market cornered in Pennsylvania on the spirits-based ready-to-drink market such as pre-mixed margaritas, rum punch and pina coladas ready to pour over ice.
Liquor stores also sell wine-based ready-to-drink products, which grocery and convenience stores can sell in limited quantities along with malt and brewed beverage-based ready-to-drink products such as flavored seltzers. Beer distributors are limited to selling just malt and brewed beverage-based ready-to-drink products for off-premises consumption.
But increasing the places where premixed spirits-based ready-to-drink products could be purchased drew opposition from all four Democrats and independent Sen. John Yudichak on the committee. One senator saw it as a step toward liquor privatization.
Wolf signaled that he also doesn’t support the ready-to-drink provision but is supportive of the original bill that makes cocktails-to-go permanent to help the ailing bar and restaurant industry that was crippled by COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“The administration remains hopeful that the Legislature will send a clean bill to his desk instead of insisting on unrelated language that provides no relief to this important industry as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said.
Not backing down
Committee Chairman Mike Regan, R-Cumberland/York counties, showed no sign of backing away from the ready-to-drink amendment that he offered.
After the committee meeting, he said he sees the cocktail-to-go provision as much more dangerous than the ready-to-drink spirits-based products that would be capped at 12.5% maximum alcohol by volume if sold at places other than liquor stores.
“We’ve seen recently that there is, especially in central Pennsylvania, a large uptick in alcohol-related accidents, deaths and DUIs,” Regan said. “With cocktails-to-go, you can’t measure ABV.”
Further, the senator added Wolf “needs to do something for the restaurants and I think a lot of blustering is going on here. But I think at the end of the day, he’s going to do right by the people who own businesses in Pennsylvania and they want this.”
What they don’t want is, though, is for their businesses to get caught in the middle of another political battle between the GOP-controlled Legislature and Democratic governor.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association said it was disappointed by the committee’s action on the bill, which is likely to be voted on by the full Senate next week.
“For 15 months, this Legislature has said they support our industry and it had the opportunity to put those words into action,” said the association spokeswoman Stephanie Otterson. “Instead, the members of the Senate Law & Justice Committee opted not to act in a meaningful way to support the industry and we’re left asking why.”
Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said the addition of the poison pill amendment has his organization’s members worried about the bill’s fate.
“We certainly hope that in consideration of what our industry has gone through during the pandemic that the [ready-to-drink] language will be stripped out of the bill to allow cocktails-to-go to stand on its own merit,” Moran said.
Sen. Tina Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia, in stating her reason for opposing the bill, said the ready-to-drink amendment turned what was a restaurant relief bill into a liquor privatization one.
“I believe it should go in a standalone bill and let the debate begin,” she said. “We’ve not had very much discussion on the issue and I don’t feel that it belongs in this bill.”
Sen. Jim Brewster of Allegheny County, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said expanding outlets that can sell the spirits-based ready-to-drink products could eat into the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s profits that are used, in part, to fund the state’s general fund budget.
He, too, said he would much prefer the bill just make permanent cocktails-to-go and said he would oppose it otherwise.
Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne County, said he recognizes that the spirits market is expanding and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board will need to change with it. While he said he would keep an open mind going forward, for now he was against advancing the bill.
Meanwhile, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents distillers who sell their products to state stores, urged its swift passage.
“Allowing spirits-based [ready-to-drink products] to be sold at additional retail outlets that already sell beverage alcohol will increase consumer convenience and provide additional tax revenue to the commonwealth,” said David Wojnar, the council’s senior vice president and head of its state policy committee .
Jan Murphy may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.