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Proposed bill that would’ve allowed Kohler Co. to operate a resort distillery gets cancelled

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A legislative proposal introduced by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and cosponsored by Representative Tyler Vorpagel (R-Plymouth) that included a measure that would’ve allowed Kohler Co. to manufacture, bottle, store and sell up to 150,000 gallons of alcohol products per year on their premises under certain conditions, was cancelled by paper vote Friday morning after push-back from small distilleries, breweries and wineries from across the state.

A special resort manufacturer permit for Kohler was only a small part of Senate Bill 801, according to Sen. Fitzgerald. The bill’s main purpose was to transfer enforcement of the state’s liquor laws from the Department of Revenue to a new Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement. Fitzgerald told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the state wasn’t doing a good enough job regulating alcohol producers, wholesalers and retailers, and that enforcement had completely fallen apart due to vacancies at the Department of Revenue. Fitzgerald said some businesses were taking improper advantage of the legal vacuum. The director of the new office would have been appointed by the governor, allowed to hire on six staffers, and given broad powers to police the industry.

Under current law, producers of alcoholic beverages generally sell it to a wholesaler, who sells it to a retailer, who sells it to the consumer. Those wishing to sell outside this three-tier system must first seek a license or permit from their local municipality. These licenses come with certain restrictions, however.

The proposed bill included a resort manufacturer permit that would have exempted resorts like Kohler Co. from the current regulations if they met certain criteria. Kohler wants to be able to sell its line of chocolate brandy at its resorts, and current laws restrict that.

After the push-back by the craft breweries, distilleries, and others who feared the new “alcohol czar” would favor the bigger alcohol beverage manufacturers, Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac) said he was calling off the scheduled vote on the bill and was asking instead for a study committee to take a thorough look at how to rewrite longstanding state liquor laws to benefit small businesses, according to the Journal Sentinel. There was no mention of whether Kohler’s resort distillery venture would be addressed in the future.

Rep. Tyler Vorpagel, the bill’s cosponsor, is from Plymouth and represents Assembly District 27, an approximately 250 square mile area which includes The Village of Kohler and Whistling Straits, as well as the Village of Elkhart Lake and Road America.

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