It’s midday on a weekday, and the bar is hopping at Sapphire Brewing Company near Cashiers.
Jackson County, technically, is “dry,” with the sale of alcoholic beverages limited to the town limits of Sylva and Dillsboro. The truth, however, is a far different matter — businesses all over the county are selling beer, wine and mixed drinks, and they are doing so legally and by the letter of the state’s ABC law.
Nowhere is this relatively unrestricted flow of booze in an ostensibly “dry” area more evident than in the southern part of the county, “on the mountain” around the Cashiers area where droves of well-heeled retirees and seasonal residents flock each summer and fall.
“There are so many loopholes,” said Amber Powell, one of two bartenders needed this hot day at Sapphire Brewing Company to keep up with the brisk demand for cold, on-tap beer. “Honestly, the law’s not very fair — it should be all businesses, or none.”
Uniformity just might be on the horizon, if Jackson voters next year approve a referendum for the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages. Four of the county’s five commissioners say they will put the question to a public countywide vote, either in the May primary or the 2012 November general election.
A law of exceptions
For now, businesses outside of Sylva and Dillsboro wanting to take advantage of Jackson County’s big thirst have encountered few problems finding ways to capitalize on the numerous exceptions in North Carolina’s alcohol laws.
But working legally within the state’s ABC system can entail meeting some fairly odd requirements. Whether it’s building tennis courts to qualify as a sports club or proving historic entitlement, there’s dozens of loopholes — but they can be complicated to understand and expensive to implement.
Take one such exception — for a “tourism ABC establishment” — as an illustrative example of the apparent tailor-made nature of most of these right-to-sell booze exceptions. Restaurants or hotels within 1.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway are allowed to serve alcohol — a handy exception if you happen to be the Balsam Mountain Inn in the Balsam community of Jackson County, or a similarly situated establishment, but not much use otherwise.
Far more common, especially in Cashiers, is the golf-course exemption.
Sapphire Brewing Company has a public golf course, so under the law, anyone age 21 or older can stride right up to the bar and order a drink, the bartender explained.
“These are adults who want to sit and have a beer,” Powell said. “It’s not like these are underage kids.”
Donald Irvine, busy eating a BLT sandwich at the bar and washing it down with a cold brew, was one of the patrons there last week. He retired in 2005 and now travels regularly from his fulltime home in Tampa, Fla., to the second home he built in Cashiers. Irvine believes North Carolina’s ABC laws are a mishmash of confusion, and that Jackson County would be better off just passing countywide alcohol.
“I can just put up a tennis net and say, ‘I’m a sports club’ and sell alcohol,” he said in wonderment.
Well, it’s not quite that easy, but it’s close — if you’ve got the cash to back the dream. In the Glenville community outside of Cashiers alongside N.C. 107, JJ’s Eatery qualifies as a sports club. Owners Jacqueline and Joel Smilack built two regulation-size tennis courts, and now they are running a bar and restaurant, BP gasoline station and a package store.
Never mind that JJ’s tennis courts are up a weedy, relatively unused-looking dirt road and out of sight — they are in fact used, they do in fact qualify the couple to legally sell alcoholic beverages, and the Smilacks are doing a brisk business indeed serving thirsty lake-goers and Glenville residents unwilling to hoof it off the mountain to buy beer.
To meet the state’s requirements for a sports club, the Smilacks charge $5 for a weekly membership or $50 for a year, with tennis court rentals extra at $15 an hour. Or, for the tennis lover in their midst, there’s a $75 annual membership option with unlimited court time.
Provide a name, address, date of birth and driver’s license number, sign on the line and you, too, can buy whatever you’d like to drink from JJ’s — the membership fee is automatically included in the prices of the alcoholic beverages you buy.
“That was the requirement from ABC to do what we do here,” Jacqueline Smilack said of the sports-club designation. “We don’t make the rules, we just have to abide by them.”
Heidi Taylor, who stopped into JJ’s last week to get a cool six-pack before heading out for a hot day on the lake, moved to Glenville just last year.
It was her first experience with a dry county, and at first she thought it meant exactly that. But she quickly learned the lay of the land.
“It is really not that much of a problem to buy alcohol,” Taylor said, easily ticking off half a dozen places where you can buy it, either to go or from a bar.
She personally made the $50 investment for an annual “membership” at JJ’s.
“It was nice. I didn’t have to drive all the way to Sylva,” Taylor said.
Still, Taylor, a Christian, doesn’t drink a lot herself. She kind of likes Jackson being a dry county with only limited places where you can get alcohol.
“I guess they didn’t want liquor stores on every corner,” Taylor said approvingly.
But in Cashiers, so-called clubs have proliferated so widely that to stay competitive Mica’s Restaurant & Pub offers lifetime membership at the bargain rate of just $1.
McElroy, in abidance with state regulations, has a stack of file drawers behind the counter reminiscent of the old card catalogs. The drawers are crammed with hundreds of membership cards, a visual testimony to the pent up demand for alcohol in this “dry” county.
McElroy sells beer and wine from a to-go shop, plus has a restaurant with a bar. His loophole? The establishment is affiliated with a country club golf course.
McElroy keeps his membership files handy should a state ABC officer pop in and ask to review them. Theoretically, ABC officers could walk into his bar and ask patrons to prove that they’re members. But no worries: If they don’t have their $1 lifetime membership card on them, a driver’s license will suffice as long as McElroy can go to his files and produce the records.
Other sports clubs in the area go the equestrian route to meet the requirement: providing equine boarding and training, plus on-site dining, lodging and meeting space and host horse trials and other events sanctioned or endorsed by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.
Or, like JJ’s, they have two or more tennis courts. Or, short of tennis, an 18-hole golf course.
Those unable to pay for expensive equestrian facilities, tennis courts or golf courses still find ways to accommodate their thirsty clientele. Four restaurants in Cashiers and Glenville currently have active brown-bagging permits, the state’s ABC database of permit holders shows.
The law ended up like it did — messy — because businesses in historically dry areas such as greater Jackson County were seeking the revenue boosts alcohol sales could bring.
“Trying to get a county to vote 20 years ago is a lot different than it is today,” said Mike Herring, administrator for the ABC Commission. “Businesses who needed permits for economic development knew if they tried to go the vote route, they might not have a positive result.”
That resulted in “spot permits” being written and shepherded through the General Assembly by state legislators who were responsive to constituent demands. How responsive? Put it this way — the ABC Commission relies on a 25-page report to break down, county by county, who can legally do what.
“Every county is different,” Herring said, describing the report as a roadmap “that has grown over the years.”
Longtime state Sen. Robert C. Carpenter of Franklin, who represented the state’s western most counties from 1988 to 2004, wasn’t a soft touch for businesses looking to sell alcoholic beverages. An unapologetically conservative Republican and devout Christian, Carpenter disapproved of the end-run, as he saw it, that businesses were taking around the state’s ABC law.
“They never came to me, because they knew where I stood,” the 87-year-old said, who died this weekend two days after being interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News for this story. “It needs to be reformed. I remember when I was first elected a bill came up in Bryson City (for a business to sell alcohol). I called up the senate minority leader and told him, ‘We don’t need more liquor sold.’ He took it on, and he killed it.”
Times change, politicians move on — in Carpenter’s wake, a slew of local bills would indeed pass that blew open the door to legal alcoholic beverage sales in “dry” areas.
Luckily for local ABC boards, however, the politics of alcohol are removed from the requirements of overseeing sales in a county. That’s just fine with Veronica Nicholas, who has served on the board for about a decade.
Sylva’s Board of Commissioners appoints the three-member ABC board, though the town splits revenue from the ABC store 50-50 with the county. The amount collected by the town could drop if, as Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam proposes, the referendum includes an ABC store for Cashiers — and it passes.
Still, Nicholas said, she believes “any time to take anything to the voters, I think it is a good thing.”
Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this report.
Even in dry counties, country clubs, golf courses, inns, bars and even gas stations can use one of several exceptions in the state ABC laws to serve alcohol.
• Historic ABC establishment
• Special ABC area
• Tourism ABC establishment
• Tourism resort
• Recreation district
• Residential private club
• Interstate interchange economic development zones
• National historic district
• Permits based on existing permits
• Sports club