Whether you’re starting 2021 with a Dryuary or toasting the New Year until the fetid smell of 2020 has worn off, January’s become a time to get thoughtful about alcohol — what we love, what we hate and what role it plays in our newly pandemic-stricken social lives. It’s also the month when, in 1919, Arkansas ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, establishing prohibition in the state and ushering in a formalized relationship between booze and government. So, in January 2021, the Arkansas Times raises a glass to all things boozy with a series we’re calling Drink/Drank/Drunk: our city’s great cocktails and mocktails, the history of temperance in the state, brews to try before you die, a boozy playlist and more.
Sure, some Arkansas legislators are using the 2021 session to attack free speech, voting rights and public safety. But at least state lawmakers are also trying to make it easier for us to drink away the pain. Two bills, arguably the best of the 2021 session so far, aim to set Arkansans up with new ways to take the edge off.
Senate Bill 32 would legalize home delivery from liquor retailers, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Even more festive is Senate Bill 76, which would allow excursion trains in the state to serve passengers “spirituous liquor, vinous liquor, small farm wine, light wine, malt liquor, and hard cider” while they ride the rails.
The booze bills are born of requests from go-getter business owners seeking to expand operations and boost profits. Both are time-tested in plenty of other states. One could argue that opposing these measures would be anti-capitalist, maybe even communist! Lucky for red-blooded Americans, both bills are off to a bang-up start, already having cleared the Senate and now awaiting good votes in the House.
Arkansas has a short but successful record already with alcohol home deliveries. Virus-savvy Arkansans have been ordering their drinks for curbside pickup or delivery since March of 2020, when Governor Hutchinson declared a COVID-19 public health emergency and adopted a raft of measures aimed at keeping businesses operating while their customers stayed home. That emergency rule allowing for alcohol delivery worked so well, there’s no reason to ever turn back, said SB 32 sponsor Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock).
Liquor store owners “realized this has turned out to be a pretty good business model for them,” English said. A few of them approached her for help in making the change permanent.
John Crow, owner of 107 Liquor in Sherwood and legislative chair for the United Beverage Retailers of Arkansas, said pushing to legalize home delivery of alcohol was on the table before COVID-19 hit. But now, he said, liquor retailers can run on their record. “We’ve proved through the pandemic that we can do this, and we can do it safely.”
Some liquor retailers in Arkansas have already hired drivers and bought new vehicles to take their business on the road. Others are holding back, reluctant to make big investments until Arkansas lawmakers commit to making alcohol delivery legal even after the pandemic subsides.
“Once it becomes law, if it becomes law, then store owners will feel comfortable really making investments in the infrastructure it will take,” Crow said.
The infrastructure is already in place for SB 76. The Arkansas & Missouri Railroad, based in Springdale, runs multiple passenger routes in Northwest Arkansas. And the Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railroad runs a two-mile scenic route in Eureka Springs during the warmer months.
Current law doesn’t allow for alcohol sales on these just-for-fun rail trips. Changing that could be a boon to ticket sales and even attract out-of-state tourists, said Brenda Rouse, operations manager for the Arkansas Missouri Railroad excursion train routes. She said she’s not aware of any other states where alcohol isn’t allowed on excursion trains.
“It would be really nice to be able to offer some local wines and beers and ciders and stuff like that to our guests, especially guests who are coming in from out of state,” she said. “We get a lot of requests that we have not been able to accommodate.”
None of Rouse’s excursion routes are running this winter, but they’ll fire up again in April. And if she’s cleared to apply for a liquor license, Rouse expects that not only will ticket sales rise, but that more corporate groups and wedding parties will seek them out for private, chartered events.
Bill sponsor Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale) said she envisions foodie-friendly dinner train excursions with local wine pairings. There’s also potential to showcase local breweries and wineries while featuring Arkansas artists, writers, and musicians. And while excursion train trips are confined now to the northern part of Arkansas, Lundstrum said she hopes SB 76 might spur demand elsewhere in the state.