TOPEKA Carry Nation would not be pleased.
Kansas, once known as a flashpoint in Nation’s bar-bashing, anti-alcohol crusade and a state where airlines couldn’t serve drinks even while flying 10,000 feet above, is loosening its liquor laws starting Sunday.
Bars will be able to offer happy-hour specials after more than 25 years of being able to reduce prices only if they’d done so for the entire day. Liquor stores will be able to offer unlimited free samples of beer, wine and liquor. And the growing business of microdistilleries will be freed to produce up to 50,000 gallons of booze a year, offer free samples and sell bottles of their product, much as microbreweries have done.
Oenophiles have some new options too.
Farm wineries will be able to offer samples and sell their products at their farms and at special events, such as the Midwest Winefest in April where vineyards previously could offer samples but had to direct customers to their farms or the Internet to buy a bottle or case of vino.
Finally, the state has defined Kansas wine: one that has at least 30 percent of ingredients grown in-state.
Curt Melzer, who owns Barleycorn’s bar downtown and the Vagabond in Delano, said most bar owners are still feeling out the new laws and will probably adjust their special offers over time rather than ditch the all-day specials in favor of targeted happy hours.
For example, the all-day half-price drinks on Thursdays at Barleycorn’s have been a longtime hit with downtown crowds of 20- and 30-somethings. Melzer said he’s going to keep that special going to keep the crowds coming.
But he plans to add some 4-7 p.m. happy-hour specials on other days to draw customers – that’s a time slot he said bars generally need to be open but don’t generate a whole lot of business, hence the specials. Bar owners typically need something like live music, games or specials to draw people since customers have a lot of options.
But Melzer doesn’t expect all bars to do away with all-day specials, even though they could now just offer lower prices for a few hours and hope patrons keep buying when regular prices resume.
“I don’t see all-day specials completely going away,” he said.
Melzer said he was pleased the Legislature made some changes to relax state liquor laws.
“Usually it goes in the other direction,” he said.
Former bar owner Pat O’Brien said the change in the law makes sense. He’s now a Friday-night regular at the Pumphouse, 825 E. Second, which expects to offer its first happy hour this week.
"It’s no big deal," he said. "People aren’t going to be drinking all day long anyways."
He added: "Happy hour was always fun. It brought people in at five."
O’Brien’s daughter, 21-year-old daughter, Mary-Kate Elliott, agreed the change is good. She doubts happy-hour offerings will influence her choice in drinking establishments, though.
"I have special places I go in town. I don’t go out for drink specials," she said.
"But it would be nice for bars to offer something – maybe on Sunday – to draw people in."
Wichitans Penny Edem and Robin Templin didn’t know the law was changing. They dined at the Pumphouse Friday night, each enjoying an after-work drink.
Each had a different perspective on happy hour.
"To me, it doesn’t make any difference," Templin, 58, said.
Edem, 47, said she likes the flexibility of special pricing on drinks throughout the day.
"It would be nice if they were offering it all evening," she said.
Shopping and sampling
Patrons at ABC Discount Wine & Liquor’s east-side store said they are happy the laws are changing.
“I think it’s a good thing,” retired Wichitan George Puckett, 67, said about the in-store sampling the law allows.
“Our goal (as a state) is to become equivalent with some states who are more active in entertainment.”
Puckett, who says he lobbied in the 1980s for the state’s restaurant and hospitality industry, likened the tastings to food samples given out at grocery stores.
“The purpose is to promote new products, not just to go out and get drinks,” he said.
Marvin Poston, 43, agreed. He called the change an “excellent idea” with the potential to bring business to Kansas liquor stores.
“It’s nice that now they’ll be able to offer tastings,” said Poston, also of Wichita, after buying wine late Thursday evening.
He added: “It encourages sales.”
Both men said they will likely miss ABC’s first wine-tasting, set for 2 p.m. Sunday, at its East Central location. But they are excited the change gives patrons a chance to try before they buy.
“You can’t learn the difference between French and American wines without sampling them,” Puckett said.
Chris Pettriess, who manages the ABC location, said samples make sense and give consumers a chance to test something before investing. “Who would pay for a car without driving it?” he asked.
He said his store has roughly 900 different wines, and showcasing a few might help consumers get something new that they really like. There’s also a tasting Sunday at the 21st and Tyler location.
But, while the laws are loosening now, he noted liquor stores still have to work around other laws, such as those preventing the sale of cigarettes and soda in the same store.
Many stores have found a way around that with a few glass walls and a different cash register under the same roof.
Meanwhile, the battle over allowing wine, alcohol and stronger beers to be sold at grocery stores and other locations is expected to resume in January when the Legislature reconvenes.
Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker and Jerry Siebenmark of The Eagle