Although her face was covered by her mask, Natasha DeHart’s eyes showed how she felt. The message on the mask says the rest: Get Bendt.
On the day the second shutdown in Texas was announced, she “was at about a 10-out-of-10 anger level all day,” she says.
DeHart is the co-founder of Bendt Distilling Co., an independent, Lewisville-based distillery that has been reeling in the wake of another statewide shutdown order that forced them to close their outdoor tasting room — a key source of revenue keeping them afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tasting rooms like Bendt’s exist in a gray area. Some may be more like bars without food, while others may be more like restaurants and have a full-service menu. Many close around 8 or 9 p.m.
They are rarely the sorts of places where people pack in close quarters to get drunk, dance or watch sports on TV. None of them seem to be among the bad actors noted for brazenly flouting mask and capacity laws in a bid to make a quick buck before the next shutdown.
In contrast, distilleries like Bendt have developed creative ways to both meet the public health constraints — masks, capacity limits, social distancing — and experiment with new products to generate alternative sources of revenue without breaking the law.
This includes their recently launched hand sanitizer and mask products, as well as premade alcohol-free cocktail mixes — which in appearance resemble Capri Sun packages — meant to be taken away to mix with spirits at home.
The lack of alcohol in the mixes is key. The relaxed restrictions on the sale of to-go cocktails notably excluded alcohol manufacturers like Bendt. The reasoning for this is not entirely clear, and may be more political than scientific.
The reasoning behind lumping tasting rooms into the same category as bars is not clear either. Indeed, distilleries like Bendt seem uniquely positioned to be able to offer a safe environment to consume a beverage amidst a pandemic.
The production of sanitizer on-site, coupled with a range of precautions — regular sanitation, outdoor-only seating, adequate spacing between tables, a limited number of patrons, mask requirements when not seated and strict employee health protocols — allow for them to exceed the requirements imposed by the state on comparable businesses. Moreover, they understand that tipsy people sometimes have a hard time following the rules; when their tasting room was open, they maintained a strict two-drink limit per person.
Now that their tasting rooms are forced to close, small independent distilleries like Bendt are in a double bind due to a restriction Abbott has yet to address: an obscure law that restricts alcohol manufacturers from shipping products directly to customers within Texas and, if they are able to sell bottles to a customer in person, restricts them to sell no more than two bottles per customer per month.
Nate Powell, one of the founders of Treaty Oak Distillery in Austin — who is also a member of the Texas Spirits PAC board and the Texas Distilled Spirits Association, which represents the interests of distilleries like Bendt — says, “The manner in which people purchase and consume alcohol is unlikely to be at the top of [Abbott’s] priorities.”
Nevertheless, he emphasized what could be done: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the problems inherent in the three-tiered system for alcohol distribution … while he cannot make new laws, there are a number of restrictions the governor could loosen via executive order that would provide immediate relief.”
Allowing direct-to-consumer delivery and shipment would not be a new or necessarily controversial action. For example, Oregon now allows distillers to directly ship and deliver alcohol to customers, including premixed cocktails.
Other states have taken similar paths. In Texas, much of the resistance to the loosening of these regulations seems to stem from those seeking to protect the status-quo, three-tiered alcohol distribution system in Texas, which binds manufacturers to distributors and liquor stores.
One of the purposes of the three-tiered system is to seek to limit the size and control of any one company over the alcohol industry in Texas. For example, the state allows only five permits per liquor store business. These outdated rules were only changed in May of 2019 somewhat to the favor of chains like Specs: While major retailers like Walmart were still excluded, the 2019 bill changed the limit from 5 to 250 permits while removing the very loopholes that had allowed for large chains like Specs to grow beyond 100 stores.
Changes to the law that would allow distillers to sell alcohol directly to consumers may upset the distribution of market share. Yet this fear is overblown in the eyes of Powell, who cites data compiled by the TDSA that suggests since the passage of the law in 2014 that allowed manufacturers to sell directly via tasting rooms, less than 1% of all direct-to-consumer alcohol sales in the state of Texas are attributable to tasting rooms.
With this perspective, the push to loosen restrictions seems less about scrambling for larger market share and more about doing what it takes to survive during turbulent times.
To that end, the Texas Craft Spirits PAC, in partnership with the Texas Whiskey Association, Texas Distilled Spirits Association and the American Craft Spirits Association, launched the #StillStrongTX campaign to advocate for immediate relief and long-term reform for distillers in Texas.
Bendt is among the distilleries represented in this campaign, which also includes Dallas-based Deep Ellum Distillery. In the eyes of owners like DeHart of Bendt, that relief is essential
“We are backed into a corner,“ she says. ”...Governor Abbott has the power to make changes now, even if only temporarily.”
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Certainly, the scope of what Abbott can do is limited; the governor is able to loosen restrictions but he cannot single-handedly provide fiscal support to local businesses that keep our communities vibrant.
Such relief would require action on behalf of the Legislature, like the introduction of the bipartisan “Save Our Stages” act. But #StillStrongTX is not pushing for such a bill. Rather, they are hoping that level of relief will not be needed if certain restrictions are simply loosened.
In the meantime, if you’d like to show your support to a local distillery, pop on over to Bendt to pick up a spirit, a cocktail mix or some sanitizer. I recommend their Texas agave spirit, which pairs excellently with the pink grapefruit margarita mix. And if you prefer whiskey, Bendt has got you covered, too.
Bendt Distilling Co., 225 S Charles St., Lewisville. Open 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.