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New Alaska alcohol laws leave some rural customers temporarily high and dry

Katie Basile

When Alaska’s new alcohol laws went into effect on New Year’s Day, much of the discussion surrounded expanded hours for breweries and distilleries. But one piece of the new law has all but halted personal alcohol deliveries to Bethel and an unknown number of other Western Alaska communities.

Under Alaska’s new alcohol law, cargo carriers must be registered in order to transport alcohol, and alcohol retailers are required to use only those registered carriers.

“Best example: you’re a package store and you are fulfilling a written order in a community outside of Anchorage, and that has to be flown to that person or community site for the delivery of alcohol,” explained Joan Wilson, director of the Alaska Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office (AMCO), during a presentation in late July. “That package store will be required under their endorsement to utilize an approved common carrier.”

As of Jan. 5, only five so-called “common carriers” in the state had completed that licensing process. And just two of them, Alaska Airlines and Northern Air Cargo, are licensed to deliver alcohol anywhere in Western Alaska. Northern Air Cargo was added to the list on Jan. 5.

Many communities in Western Alaska are “local option,” meaning that they put some level of restriction on the possession, importation, or sale of alcohol. For communities without package stores, like Bethel, customers rely on air cargo to ship in orders of beer, wine, or liquor.

Under the new law, to become a registered carrier of alcoholic beverages, companies must fill out a form and pay a one-time common carrier fee of $1,250, which is then approved by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, according to state statute.

Reached Jan. 5, Bert Dade was filling out paperwork.

“I'm in the middle of doing it right now,” Dade said.

Dade is the station manager for Dependable Freight, the agent that handles alcohol shipments for Everts Air Cargo. The majority of personal alcohol orders for Bethel go through Everts.

“It's more than just Everts having to fill out an application,” Dade explained. “We, Dependable Freight, which is their agent, also have to fill out the application or else it wouldn't even work. So we're both in the process of getting that finished. And we're hoping to have it in by [Jan. 8].”

Dade said that the common carrier application wasn’t even on his radar.

“I only found out about it two days ago,” Dade said. “And from what I understand, Everts found out about it a few days after Christmas. So it was all a big, you know, why it was not publicized? I have no idea.”

Not every business in town has seen alcohol orders grind to a halt, though.

Uncommon Pizza is one of the two restaurants in Bethel licensed to sell beer and wine. Davis Carr manages Uncommon Pizza, and said that the business had been unaffected by the licensing snafu, receiving shipments from Anchorage beverage distributor Odom Corporation through Northern Air Cargo. But Carr said that he’s heard complaints from customers wondering when their booze would finally show up.

“We have staff and customers who are coming in and, you know, are waiting to get their shipment of booze,” Carr said. “I have heard plenty of people and murmurs of just orders not coming through properly.”

Employees at Gold Rush Liquor in Anchorage said that they’d been dealing with the carrier licensing issues since the new year, and many rural alcohol orders were on hold while companies figured out state carrier licensing. Gold Rush ships through a number of carriers, including Alaska Airlines, ACE Air Cargo, Northern Air Cargo, Everts, and Lynden.

Brown Jug, another Anchorage alcohol distributor, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Carr, the manager of Uncommon Pizza, said that it’s frustrating.

“Even outside of the holiday season they're seemingly – Bethel is always at the short end of the stick when it comes to just logistics and getting stuff here,” Carr said. “All you can do is, you know, chuckle and try to make the most of it. You know what I mean?”

Alcohol sales in Western Alaska have long been controversial. Many communities in the region restrict alcohol sales, transport, or consumption to some degree. In Bethel, dozens of people showed up to testify against AC Quickstop’s package store in 2018. Bethel reentered “damp” status in 2020 when the sole liquor store closed after more than a decade as a “wet” community. And voters soundly rejected the potential for a beer and wine package store last year.

It’s not clear when issues with common carrier licensing will be resolved. The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office did not immediately respond to phone or email requests for comment on Jan. 5.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.