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May 11, 2023

Canned cocktails could become available at Pa. grocery stores and beer distributors

State Sen. Mike Regan is spearheading a bill to expand the distribution of these drinks

Pennsylvania residents would be able to buy canned cocktails at the supermarket under a proposed bill making its way through the state legislature. 

The measure, introduced earlier this year by state Sen. Mike Regan, a Republican representing York and Cumberland counties, would expand the sale of spirits-based ready-to-drink cocktails to state-controlled liquor stores, grocery stores, convenience stores, beer distributors and local bars. The bill would put ready-to-drink cocktails under the same umbrella as beer and wine, which are already available at private retailers in the state.

A ready-to-drink cocktail is a liquor-based beverage that is pre-mixed with non-alcoholic ingredients and canned before hitting the market. In order to be considered an RTD cocktail under the bill, the beverage cannot contain more than 12% ABV. Though RTDs were gaining popularity before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have become one of the fastest-growing products in the beverage industry as brands capitalized on wellness trends and desires for portable versions of classic cocktail flavors, SevenFiftyDaily reported. 

Current state law only allows the sale of canned cocktails at Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores, which are operated by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and generate state revenue through sales. 

If the bill is passed, canned cocktails would be made available wherever beer, wine and malt beverages are already sold. In a co-sponsorship memo, Regan argued that the legislation would not harm sales for the PLCB, writing that it would "simply expand the locations these products are available for purchase" and create more avenues for bringing pre-canned drinks into the state. 

"It's well past time we create a more level playing field for spirits-based ready-to-drink cocktails in Pennsylvania, and that's exactly what this bill does," said Regan. "Despite having the exact same alcohol content as beer- and wine-based canned cocktails, spirits RTDs are at a more than 10,000-store disadvantage. That hurts businesses and limits consumer choice and convenience." 

The bill, spearheaded by Senate Republicans, advanced out of the Senate Law & Justice Committee on Wednesday along party lines and will head to the Senate for a full vote later this year. 

The PLCB regulates the sale and distribution of alcohol throughout Pennsylvania, and changes to its process are often contested due to the impacts it could have on revenue brought in through state-controlled alcohol sales. During the last fiscal year, the PLCB amassed $3.02 billion in sales and made $839.3 million in contributions to state and local governments, as well as other beneficiaries throughout Pennsylvania. 

In an emailed statement to PhillyVoice, a spokesperson for the PLCB said that the board expects to accrue about $80 million in sales of ready-to-drink cocktails, but that for Pennsylvania consumers, a variety of brands is not as important as familiarity. 

"This spring and summer our stores prominently feature new and popular RTDs so they are quite visible and easily accessible to customers," the spokesperson said. "Since the last time the PLCB testified on this topic and based on the concerns raised at that time, we have expanded RTD availability to meet consumer demand. But as always, we stand ready to cooperatively implement any new legislation as it is enacted." 

The fate of canned cocktails was previously tied to the sale of to-go cocktails, which was implemented in mid-2020 as part of an effort to help bars, restaurants and hotels with liquor licenses that were struggling at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The measure, which expired when the state's COVID-19 disaster emergency was lifted, became popular with residents looking to get out of the house following pandemic shutdowns. 

The following year, a bill that would have made to-go cocktails permanent was introduced in the state legislature and passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support before heading to the state Senate for further consideration. At the time, former Gov. Tom Wolf expressed support for making to-go cocktails permanent — until Republicans on the Senate Law & Justice Committee added an amendment that would allow grocery stores, beer distributors, convenience stores and bars to sell pre-canned alcoholic beverages. 

Wolf said he would veto the measure, which never made it to his desk before he left office in early 2023. At the time, he voiced concerns that making RTDs available outside of state stores was a step too far in privatizing the state's alcohol sales. As governor, Wolf previously vetoed efforts by Republicans to limit the PLCB and expand alcohol sales to private businesses. 

Gov. Josh Shapiro did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the pending legislation. The governor previously supported the to-go cocktail bill as attorney general, saying that the pandemic-era offering was a lifeline to bars and restaurants and should be made permanent. It is unclear whether he similarly opposed the added amendment that would have expanded the sale of pre-canned cocktails. 

Each of the five Democrats on the Senate Law & Justice Committee voted against the measure, though some Democrats suggested there may be room for compromise on the bill, depending on how the PLCB wants to proceed. 

"I'm told that we had a hearing in 2021, and since then it feels like the (state) stores have made a lot of progress," Sen. Christina Tartaglione, a Democrat from Philadelphia, told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. "I'd be interested in hearing their perspective before we land anywhere on how we consider the future of how we sell these products." 

After passing out of the state Senate Law & Justice Committee, the bill heads to the Senate for a full vote. The Republican-led measure is expected to pass out of the Senate, though it is unclear how it will fare in the Democrat-led House of Representatives.