Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The most substantial rewrite of New Mexico’s liquor law in decades is taking effect today (July 1) – changes that could result in fewer minis but more margaritas.
The legislation bans the sale of miniature bottles of booze at liquor stores, removes restrictions on Sunday alcohol sales and establishes a cheaper license intended to allow more restaurants to serve spirits and cocktails, not just beer and wine.
The bipartisan bill – approved by legislators in March – also clears the way for the home delivery of alcoholic drinks, but only after new rules are established.
Candice Armstrong, an assistant manager at Slate Street Cafe, said the Downtown Albuquerque restaurant may apply for the newly created license that would allow customers to order, say, a bloody mary at brunch.
“We have requests for it – for cocktails,” she said Wednesday. “I think it’ll definitely bring in more people.”
The new legislation, House Bill 255, is one of about 40 new laws taking effect today, the beginning of the fiscal year. Some bills passed this year took effect in June or have other effective dates.
House Bill 255 emerged as one of the most intensely debated proposals of the 60-day session earlier this year. It was amended repeatedly and triggered critical testimony from liquor license holders who fear it will erode the value of their investment in scarce licenses, by offering cheaper options for restaurateurs.
But a bipartisan group of legislators carried the measure to passage on a 41-27 vote in the House and 29-11 in the Senate.
“That was several decades in coming,” House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said of the liquor law changes. “We were paralyzed from the fact that New Mexico had put in place a very exclusive club that was expensive to buy into it.”
A key part of the measure is the new liquor license options for restaurants. They’ve typically been limited to just beer and wine sales unless they purchase a more expensive license – at a cost of $350,000 or more – allowing the sale of liquor.
But the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division of the state will now accept applications for a $10,000 license designed for restaurants, allowing the sale of liquor and cocktails. An even cheaper license is available if they want to sell locally distilled liquor, such as gin and vodka, rather than national brands.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, described the changes as an “unprecedented” breakthrough at the Roundhouse.
“The liquor lobby,” he said, “has fought every expansion of alcohol sales by the drink for decades.”
Republican Rep. Joshua Hernandez of Rio Rancho said he expects the bill to promote the creation of new businesses by lowering the cost of starting a restaurant serving more than just beer and wine.
Some counties in New Mexico, he said, don’t have a single establishment with the larger liquor license.
“This will give those smaller communities a fighting chance to compete for tourism,” Hernandez said.
An unusual mix of lawmakers sponsored the bill – Republicans Hernandez and Montoya and Democrats Maestas, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque and Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil of Albuquerque. Other members also contributed key amendments to the bill.
Andrew Vallejos, the state’s director of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said his division will process applications for the new restaurant license as quickly as possible.
It’s too early to say how many will apply, he said, but the price of the new license should attract interest.
“Restaurants operate on notoriously narrow margins,” Vallejos said.
Immediate changes will start this week.
Convenience and liquor stores can no longer sell individual 3-ounce miniatures for off-site consumption. They can still be sold on golf courses, at hotel minibars or other locations where customers can legally drink them.
The proposed rules include an exception for the sale of a “party package” of minis bundled together by the manufacturer and intended for sale as one unit.
The Fourth of July will also mark the first Sunday under the new law, which ends restrictions on Sunday sales of alcohol.
New Mexico has previously banned on-premise alcohol sales before 11 a.m. and package sales by a store before noon on Sunday. But now service can generally begin at 7 a.m., as with any other day of the week.
There are also new reciprocity rules for local breweries and wineries. In addition to selling local beer, for example, they can also serve locally distilled spirits, if they choose.
In addition, the law includes some specific liquor law changes that apply to McKinley County.
One of the law’s biggest changes will take time.
The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Division is now accepting written public comment on proposed regulations to govern the delivery of drinks to people’s homes.
A public hearing is scheduled July 26 from 1 to 5 p.m.
The law would allow liquor and grocery stores and restaurants to offer home delivery of alcoholic drinks.
But they would face a permitting process and some restrictions.
Restaurants, for example, would be limited to delivering alcohol with $10 of food, and large stores in some communities could deliver only beer and wine, not spirits.
Delivery to certain locations – college dorm rooms and businesses – will be banned.
“The chance for abuse is too high,” Vallejos said.
There will also be requirements to check identification – perhaps by the delivery person at the door – to keep drinks from going to underage buyers.
“This is a new model, and we want it to work,” Vallejos said.
Delivery permits, he said, could be issued sometime in August or September.