Arkansas' Arcane Liquor Laws Slowly Loosen

Arkansas' Arcane Liquor Laws Slowly Loosen
Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, and Kane Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism

The controversy over the grocery wine bill illustrates the importance of convenience to the alcohol consumer, convenience is a quality-of-life issue, and quality-of-life issues are closely linked to tourism.

In other words, in the last few years Arkansans have begun to realize that a beer or a glass of wine with dinner enhances the tourist experience and have sought to make that beer or glass of wine more readily available.

Montine McNulty, who has been executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association for 20 years, says the past 10 to 15 years in particular have seen many changes to Arkansas’ alcohol laws. Act 1813 of 2003, for example, expanded the definition of a private club, allowing entities that existed for the purposes of “community hospitality, professional association, entertainment” to sell alcoholic beverages.

One of the highest-profile efforts to accommodate tipplers took place in 2012, when Wal-Mart heirs Tom and Steuart Walton led a campaign to allow package liquor sales in Benton County, home of Wal-Mart and of the then-newly opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a major tourist destination.

Kane Webb, an Arkansas native who left the state for several years and returned after being appointed executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism in 2015, said an increased interest in permitting alcohol sales is clear. “The evidence is there,” he said. “Benton County went wet. Clark County went wet. So increasingly you’re seeing more of it.”

Webb noted that the lodges at Mount Magazine State Park and DeGray Lake Resort State Park serve alcohol. “That’s been a good service and a good convenience for folks,” he said. “There hasn’t really been any backlash there at all or any problems.”

“I think that economic development is important to communities,” McNulty said. “And when they look at the factors that influence economic development, I think that restaurants and hotels and the ability to have a glass of wine or beer or whatever — all that plays into where people want to live. And I think that that has influenced and changed Arkansans’ thinking about alcohol.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in the growth of the craft beer brewing industry in Arkansas and in the advertising by the state’s Parks & Tourism Department of the burgeoning brewpub scene. The department also touts the Arkansas Wine Trail, which highlights the state’s various wineries. And the state Legislature has slowly worked to accommodate wine tourism by loosening restrictions on the shipment of wines out of state. Parks & Tourism even advertises Arkansas’ first legal distillery since Prohibition, Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock, which provides tours to visitors.

Millennials, with their interest in patronizing local businesses and in “authentically” experiencing a local destination, have been the impetus for some of this change. But McNulty thinks that for Arkansans, local control of alcohol laws will always remain important. Some communities might welcome an alcohol-serving restaurant but wouldn’t necessarily welcome a package store.

Nevertheless, McNulty said, “Change is coming and it’s still coming.”