A few weeks ago, I wandered into In'finiti, a new brewpub and distillery on the Portland waterfront. I wasn't looking for a topic for a political column. I was looking for a beer.
I hate it when politics intrudes on happy hour, but that's the price I pay for being a journalist and not having to get a real job. Because in addition to a fine IPA, In'finiti was having a special on governmental stupidity.
The pub has a two splendid-looking stills, capable of turning out its own whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, and many more exotic liquors.
Unfortunately, capability is one thing, but legality is quite another.
While Maine law allows In'finiti owner Eric Michaud to make beer and sell it directly to his bar customers, doing the same with spirits is not permitted. As Michaud discovered to his dismay, he can't simply keep track of how much alcohol he distills and send the state a check for taxes, as he does with his beers. That would be much too easy.
Instead, state statutes require Michaud to bottle his beverages, truck them to Augusta, sell them at wholesale prices to the monopoly that owns all distribution rights for liquor — and then buy them back at whatever markup a bunch of government bureaucrats decide is appropriate. Only then would he be allowed to shuttle the stuff he made back to Portland and sell it to his pub's patrons.
And just to show the regulators have an interesting (some might say bizarre) sense of humor, he has to pay immediately for the booze he buys back, but the wholesaler has 30 days to settle up with him. In other words, he loses money on the deal.
After Michaud explained this to me, I needed a drink. Or two. Luckily, his beers are excellent and come in a wide range of styles, from exotic Belgian ales to traditional German lagers to a British mild to the aforementioned American IPA. His cocktail list is extensive and innovative, often using liquor from other Maine distilleries to fill the gap left by overregulation. And the food was no disappointment, setting new standards for the term pub grub.
I'd have had a great time if I hadn't been so annoyed.
For all the talk I've heard from Republican Governor Paul LePage and Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond (in whose legislative district In'finiti is located) about making state government more accommodating to small businesses, there's no evidence of it here. Instead, there are costly, time-consuming, outdated, anticompetitive, and irrational barriers to engaging in commerce.
Michaud has spent a large amount of money on his stills and other hardware. He's dumped serious cash into his bar's décor. He employs a bunch of people, not only bartenders and wait staff, but the highly skilled personnel who make the beer and (eventually) distilled products. Those latter positions are manufacturing jobs, the kind of employment every politician is always claiming Maine needs more of.
Michaud could be excused if the first whiskey he sells is called Red Tape Rye or Bureaucracy Bourbon. He can supplement the top shelf with Government-Controlled Gin, Overregulated Rum, Administrative Aperitif, and Nobody Told Maine They Repealed The Volstead Act Vodka.