Group gathers signatures to allow whiskey distilleries

Associated Press • Mar 30, 2013 at 6:14 AM

CHATTANOOGA -- A group that favors allowing whiskey distilleries in Chattanooga has begun collecting petition signatures in an effort to take the issue to voters.

Chris Smith, a spokesman for Let Hamilton Distill, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press (bit.ly/14sdZTb) early last week that about 1,500 signatures had been collected. The group needs 14,000 for the effort to go to referendum.

Whether to allow distilleries in Hamilton County started getting attention last year when Chattanooga Whiskey Co. began making Chattanooga whiskey, which is distilled in Lawrenceburg, Ind., due to prohibition-era statutes.

Company President Joe Ledbetter has said distilling the product locally would mean more than a dozen jobs and $150,000 annually in tax and tourism dollars.

The petition asks that the Hamilton County Commission allow residents to decide the matter by ballot.

Smith said politicians have argued for decades over whether there should be alcohol production, and now is the time for the public to take action.

"We think people on either side of the aisle feel that we should let the people decide," Smith said.

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he favors allowing distilleries to operate in the county, though he doesn't drink. He voted to send a letter to state legislators in November supporting the effort to open a distillery.

"You know, we've got package stores and liquor by the drink. A distillery probably wouldn't contribute to any more alcohol sales or drunk driving -- but it might bring a few more jobs," Henry said.

Commissioners Chester Bankston and Tim Boyd say they are opposed to allowing distilleries to operate in Hamilton County.

"I still oppose it and will until the day I die. I've seen alcohol destroy too many people, and I can't be in favor of it," Bankston said. "My vote is against it. Period."

Commissioner Tim Boyd said he also opposes a special election due to costs.

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