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Jul 11, 2017 8:37 AM

Fireball bottler fights against proposed ban on 'nips' sales in Maine

The Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The Louisiana-based whiskey producer has launched a fight against the Republican governor's proposed ban on in-state sales of tiny alcohol bottles.

The future of the popular, shot-sized "nips" in Maine is in the hands of a state liquor commission, which is set to deliver a key vote Tuesday. Gov. Paul LePage's administration recommended the ban last month, and the commission's five LePage-appointed members expects to finalize the decision in August.

Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is driving Maine's soaring sales of nips, with the largest growth in southern Maine. The LePage administration says the state sold 8.4 million 50-mililiter liquor bottles in the 2016 fiscal year, and estimates sales of over 12 million 50-mililiter bottles in the 2017 fiscal year.

Meanwhile, liquor OUI charges rose to 3,735 in 2016, up from 3,462 in 2014. Maine saw 52 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2015, up from 37 in 2014, which is down from 66 a decade ago.

Attorneys for the alcoholic beverages company Sazerac — the country's largest distiller — calls the proposed ban politically motivated, anti-business and unsupported by direct evidence. The company argues a 100-lb woman would have a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 after downing a Fireball, below the state's .08 limit.

"(T)he company is now caught in the middle of a political battle that threatens its future in the state and the jobs it provides," reads comments prepared on Sazerac's behalf by the Portland law firm Irwin, Tardy and Morris.

But the LePage administration has doubled down on its claim that nips are "inordinately contributing to illegal drinking and driving," and last week responded to criticism from industry and retail groups that the state will shift to "product sizes that have historically best served consumer demand in a socially responsible manner."

"The typical consumer in Maine will simply transition to a larger bottle," Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations Director Gregory Mineo said in written comments as he played down the possibility of "cross-border excursions" to purchase nips.

The fight began when the LePage administration opposed a Democrat's amended bill to reduce littering by adding a 5-cent bottle deposit to the tiny liquor bottles. LePage first said the bill would increase redemption costs and later added it didn't do enough to combat drunken driving.

LePage said members of the public and law enforcement told him "that 50-milliliter containers on the side of the road often result from consumption inside a moving vehicle."

"The behavior is more egregious because the act of discarding the bottle out the window is merely an attempt to eliminate the evidence of the crime," he said.

LePage, as he had promised, took steps to begin removing nips from Maine's liquor market after the Legislature overrode his veto.

Sazerac argues the LePage administration "hastily pulled together anecdotal 'facts.'"

"The bureau has failed to establish this correlation, and it has failed to show that the shift in emphasis away from litter eradication is anything but a political maneuver designed to achieve apolitical result," the company said.

Sazerac — which also has operations in New Hampshire among other states — said it could reconsider a planned expansion of its Lewiston bottling plant where it employs 130 workers. It estimated a $280 million economic loss over 13 years for Maine without providing a detailed breakdown.

While the company complains the ban would hurt sales and state liquor revenue, it also acknowledged that LePage's proposed ban would lead to people buying more alcohol in bigger bottles. Attorneys representing Sazerac didn't respond to request for comment Monday.

The company last month reported spending $6,000 in May to lobby legislative and executive branch officials on the bottle deposit bill.

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