Calling a recommendation to ban nips “politically motivated” and unsupported by evidence, a company that churns out the tiny liquor-filled bottles in Lewiston is threatening to pull the plug on a planned $1 million expansion.
Sazerac Co., which sells the fast-growing Fireball Cinnamon Whisky brand bottled in Lewiston, said the “rush to judgment” by the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations will “undermine consumer choice in Maine, reduce state revenue and eliminate jobs.”
The company’s testimony blasted a proposal submitted recently to liquor commissioners that argued a ban would reduce littering and reduce drunken driving without creating a financial hit for the state.
The State Liquor and Lottery Commission plans Tuesday to decide whether or not to go along with the recommendation of Gregory Mineo, the bureau’s director. Gov. Paul LePage pushed for a ban after legislators overrode his veto of a bill to add a nickel deposit on the 50-milliliter bottles.
Sazerac, which owns the Boston Brands of Maine plant in Lewiston, said that if nips are no longer allowed for sale in the state it would “force the organization to reconsider” plans to invest another $1 million in its facility and to convert 31 part-time jobs there into full-time positions.
The 130-person workforce at the Lewiston facility “will undoubtedly be impacted,” the company said in testimony submitted by the Bangor-based law firm of Irwin, Tardy and Morris.
Sazerac said that barring nip sales in Maine “makes no sense” and “will threaten good jobs in this state, as well as economic development and revenue that is critically needed.”
The company said its history in Lewiston “ought to be celebrated” because it “took a plant slated for closure, kept it open, modernized it and added good jobs to the region.”
Instead, it said, it is “now caught in the middle of a political battle that threatens its future in the state and the jobs it provides.”
Sazerac officials, who declined comment Wednesday, asked the commission in the testimony “to consider the potential economic impact” that a ban could cause.
“It will threaten jobs and it will put the state’s financial health at risk,” Sazerac said.
It estimates Maine would lose $280 million during the next 13 years if it goes ahead with the proposed ban, eliminating $696 million in projected retail sales and probably cutting into the profits and employment levels at retailers that sell nips.
The company also took issue with Mineo’s assertion that there is a direct correlation between the soaring sales of nips and a swelling number of driving-under-the-influence convictions in the state.
Calling Mineo’s assertion “anecdotal and speculative,” Sazerac’s statement insisted there has been no testimony, research or evidence to back up the charge.
It said the bureau shifted the issue from littering — the reason the Legislature took up the nips problem — by pulling together a hasty mishmash to try to make a connection between drunk driving convictions and nip sales.
“The bureau has failed to establish this correlation and it has failed to show that the shift in emphasis away from litter eradication is anything but a political maneuver designed to achieve a political result,” the company said.
It said that if the bureau is concerned about a spike in convictions it “would best serve Maine consumers to conduct a continuous study that illuminates the issue and allows all interested parties to understand the factual basis and evidence” for Mineo’s claim.
Sazerac said it is revealing that the bureau failed to secure any support from law enforcement for its theory that nips are causing more drunken driving. It pointed out, too, that the bureau didn’t cite even a single conviction involving the drinking of nips.
In any case, it said, Mineo’s recommendation offers “an insufficient basis” on which “to implement a wholesale policy change directed at a single product category” that Mainers enjoy.
“Consumers in Maine have shown a desire to have this size spirit available for purchase,” Sazerac said. Removing its sale in Maine won’t eliminate that demand.
Instead, the company said, a ban “will force Maine consumers” to buy nips outside the state, removing revenue “that would otherwise flow into the Maine economy and support the Maine workforce.”
The nips hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 11, at the Augusta State Armory, 179 Western Ave. in Augusta.