Bill targets ready-to-drink cocktails for expansion beyond Pennsylvania liquor system

HARRISBURG — A bill pending in the Pennsylvania Legislature could free ready-to-drink cocktails from the shelves of state-owned liquor stores.

Doing so could be a boon for other licensed establishments, such as bars and restaurants, which said the product will be key to restoring their businesses post pandemic.

“I don’t think this is an either-or situation,” said Brandy Rand, chief operating officer of IWSR, a company that analyzes alcohol market trends. “Today’s consumer wants everything.”

IWSR predicts spirit-based ready-to-drink cocktails (RTDs) will grow 41% through 2024, representing the fastest-growing alcohol category nationally and across the world.

The demand for RTDs only will grow as consumers return to dining out and drinking at bars, Rand said.

“We do expect, with having the sheer number and higher quality and premium level of RTDs, you’ll start to see those on the menu,” she said.

Except in Pennsylvania, where RTD sales are limited to the 625 state-owned Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores. David Wojnar, senior vice president and head of state public policy for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said that number is “far below” the national average and the liquor control state average.

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“There’s less than one store in Pennsylvania per 10,000 residents,” he said. “So expanding the footprint of where these drinks are sold is exactly what we hope to achieve.”

Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Camp Hill, agreed. That’s why he introduced House Bill 772 in December. It would allow restaurants, clubs and beer distributors to sell RTDs. The legislation is a reincarnation of a bill from last that session that he sponsored after a statewide shutdown of liquor stores amid the pandemic demonstrated the “stranglehold” the private system has on spirit sales.

Rothman told The Center Square on Friday that Republican leaders of the House Liquor Control Committee and the Senate Law and Justice Committee support the measure. However, with Chairman Jeff Pyle’s retirement from the House earlier this month and Chairman Mike Regan’s hospitalization from a motorcycle accident last week, the effort is on hold.

Should the state approve such a measure, Wojnar said sales from restaurants alone could generate an additional $86 million in tax revenue.

Critics argue, however, the bill gives an unfair advantage to beer distributors and other license types not previously approved to sell liquor.

Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said the organization supports the expansion of RTD sales to only R and H licensees, which include restaurants, bars, taverns and hotels. He cited Act 39, a 2016 law that loosened restrictions on alcohol sales across the state and allowed beer distributors to begin selling six packs of beer – a right once given exclusively to R and H license holders.

“Today, beer distributors can sell anywhere from a bottle to cases to kegs, while R and H licensees can’t sell above 192 ounces,” he said. “There’s an uneven playing field as a result. If the state is going to expand liquor sales through RTDs being sold by beer distributors, once again it will hurt the R and H licensees.”

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