published Saturday, March 30th, 2013

Whiskey makers distance themselves from petitioners

Joe Ledbetter speaks to the media outside the Chattanooga Choo-Choo in this November file photo.
Joe Ledbetter speaks to the media outside the Chattanooga Choo-Choo in this November file photo.
Photo by Staff File Photo.

Let Hamilton Distill's campaign to force a referendum on allowing distilling in Hamilton County is separate from and soon could be at odds with efforts by the Chattanooga Whiskey Co., which backs a pro-distillation bill waiting for a vote in the General Assembly.

"We're saying, just go away," said Joe Ledbetter, co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey. "We don't know if it's hostile, but we definitely think it's weird."

Ledbetter doesn't want lawmakers' feathers ruffled by a petition drive that some could see as an effort to go behind their backs. A referendum also could give hesitant lawmakers "a political out," Ledbetter said, allowing them to avoid voting for pro-liquor laws.

Asked whether Let Hamilton Distill would drop efforts to force a vote if the distillation bill becomes law, spokesman Chris Smith said Friday he has "not looked that far down the road."

The only reason to push for a referendum at that point would be to drive a vote against whiskey distillation -- a position at odds with the group's name.

Smith is a managing partner at Little-Smith Strategies, a political consulting firm in Nashville. He says he has lived in Chattanooga since January, and he is not working for any politician or liquor industry agent.

"This is just me using my skill set to help some of my friends and community members to bring jobs and economic development to Chattanooga," Smith said Friday.

The group publicly supports liquor distilling in the county. It started collecting signatures this month on a petition to force a countywide referendum on the issue. It needs just more than 14,000 signatures of qualified voters -- 10 percent of ballots cast in the 2012 presidential election -- to trigger a local vote.

But the group's petition drive has made Ledbetter a bit nervous. He is worried about Let Hamilton Distill's motives, in part because the group made no attempt to contact Chattanooga Whiskey Co. -- the biggest local stakeholder involved with the issue.

Ledbetter and his business partner, Tim Piersant, want to open a distillery in Chattanooga's Southside.

Hamilton County was left out of a 2009 law which booted Prohibition-era laws in 41 other counties. The two men have been navigating legislative red tape for months, pushing an amended distilling bill to bring Hamilton into the fold.

If the bill fails in the Legislature -- it already has been delayed multiple times -- current law remains. In that case, only a referendum like the one proposed by Let Hamilton Distill could allow whiskeymaking in the county.

As of Thursday, the proposed amendments would ditch the language that prevented the Hamilton County Commission -- or any municipality -- from allowing liquor distilleries to operate with a simple resolution.

Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, the bill's sponsor, said Let Hamilton Distill's petition will likely be unnecessary. Despite some opposition from legislators, Carr said most lawmakers are pleased with the amendment.

Under the amended law, municipalities would have the power to choose their own destiny, Carr said.

"If this bill passes, as is, Chattanooga will be able to grant the necessary licenses and permits to Chattanooga Whiskey or whoever that afternoon," Carr said Thursday. "And if Hamilton County votes it down, that doesn't affect Chattanooga at all. Under current law, Hamilton County gets to make the decision for everybody. That's the problem."

Carr's not worried about the delays on Capitol Hill.

"Anytime we do alcohol in this state, you'd think we're moving heaven and earth. It's been challenging," Carr said.

Smith reiterated Friday that Ledbetter and Chattanooga Whiskey should not be worried and the group's ultimate goal is "to bring jobs to Hamilton County."

Staff Writer Ellis Smith contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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