S.C. Vote to Decide Fate of Mini Liquor Bottles

When South Carolina voters go to the polls Nov. 2, they will be doing more than casting ballots for their political leaders. They also will be putting in an order for how they want their cocktails served.

A constitutional amendment asks voters if they want to do away with one of the state's modern peculiarities: tiny bottles of liquor used in restaurants and bars.

South Carolina is the only state that does not allow bartenders to pour drinks from regular-size bottles of liquor. Instead, for every drink, they have to open 1.7-ounce bottles of booze like the ones served on airplanes.

Supporters of free-pour liquor say minibottle-only drinks need to go the way of the Confederate flag, which flew over the Statehouse dome up until a few years ago, and video gambling machines, now banned from the state.

They say drinks will become cheaper and roads will become safer because shots from normal-size bottles are much smaller.

"It makes no sense at all. Why keep a system that no one else uses?" Ben Rhodes said Friday during happy hour at the Rhino Room in Columbia. "And if it makes drinks cheaper, that's even better."

But minibottle supporters argue that switching to free-pour drinks will leave taxpayers stuck with the tab because it will result in lower tax revenue. They also say changing the system will allow unscrupulous bartenders to water down drinks.

"Just because it's different doesn't mean it's wrong," said Suzie Riga, vice president of Green's Liquors, a wholesaler that supplies minibottles to restaurants and bars.

The minibottle came to South Carolina in the 1970s as part of a compromise that brought liquor by the drink to the state. Those opposed to drinking figured the 1.5-ounce bottles then used would encourage people to drink less.

At the time, South Carolina was one of almost two dozen states using the tiny bottles. But over the years, minibottles increased to 1.7 ounces as the makers went metric, and free-pour portions declined to an ounce. That, coupled with increasing costs of the little bottles, led all the other states to go to do away with them.

The little bottles have created headaches for bartenders.

Under current law, drinkers have to buy an entire minibottle to get any amount of liquor. That can be a pain when making drinks such as Long Island ice teas, which are made from five different liquors and come out to a knee-wobbling 8.5 ounces of booze per drink under the minibottle system. To avoid the problem, many bars have to serve Long Island ice teas by the pitcher.

And a drink like a white Russian, which requires half as much Kahlua as vodka, cannot be made right at all.

"It's like baking a cake. All the same portions won't work," said Tom Sponseller, president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.

So far, the ballot issue has stirred up little controversy, but both sides expect a big push of newspaper and radio ads in the final weeks before the election.

"One way or the other, I'll still be here drinking after Election Day," Adam Graham said at the Rhino Room. "So it doesn't matter to me."

Passing the amendment will not get rid of minibottles completely. Instead, it will give lawmakers authority to control liquor laws. Most supporters say the Legislature would act quickly to pass a law that would add larger free-pour bottles while keeping minibottles as an option.

"Consumers will still have a choice," Sponseller said. "If they like the little bottles, there will still be people selling them."

But supporters of the tiny bottles argue switching to free-pour drinks could open the state's liquor laws to yearly changes at the whim of lawmakers. They also believe it will reduce tax revenue because the minibottles are taxed so heavily and are easy to inventory. With free-pour liquor, taxes would probably be charged per drink, and bar and restaurant owners could underreport sales, they say.

Riga also said businesses would have to spend a lot of money changing warehouses and liquor cabinets to store bigger bottles.