Distillery application for Pigeon Forge project raises questions

May. 26, 2013 @ 05:19 PM

A review of applications for licenses to build distilleries in Sevier County led to new questions about a local couple’s plans to have one in Pigeon Forge.

Copies of the applications, obtained from the Knoxville office of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission by The Mountain Press only after a Freedom of Information request, indicate Leslie and William Thomas intend to open a distillery on the site of the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show. The couple are employed by Fee-Hedrick Family Entertainment, the owner of the theater.

The application indicates they named their limited liability corporation HMM, LLC, and shows the address as 119 Music Road in Pigeon Forge — the address of the dinner show.

Debbie Newsome, spokeswoman for Fee-Hedrick, had previously said the couple’s application was not affiliated with Fee-Hedrick or the show.

Leslie Thomas reiterated that point Friday in a phone interview with The Mountain Press, saying she would change the name and had no plans to use that location.

When she was first asked about the Hatfield and McCoy Moonshine name on the application, Thomas said the name was incorrect and asked to see a copy of the application, which was signed by herself and her husbnad on April 18.

After the application was faxed to her, she confirmed she had signed the document but said she didn’t plan to use that name or to locate the business on the site of the dinner show. She said she thought she had to turn in the application that day, and used the first name and business address that came to mind.

‘They had to have and address and they had to have a name,” she said. “I can promise you Hatfield and McCoy had nothing to do with it.”

However, the application states that David Fee and Jim Hedrick are the owners of the property, and that the “lease is being completed.”

Thomas said Fee and Hedrick are not involved at all in the planned distillery, saying, “David and Jim are not part of it.”

It would apparently be illegal for the two men to be involved — under state law, owners of a business that sells liquor by the drink can’t own or be part of the ownership of a distillery, according to an ABC official.

Thomas said if she and her husband move ahead with plans to have a distillery, they will change the name of the business and they don’t actually plan to locate it at the dinner show site. “The name is going to be changed,” she said.

She indicated, as she has in the past, that they wanted to get a license so they could explore the possibility of opening a distillery somewhere in Pigeon Forge. “We have nothing, no plans whatsoever.”

The paperwork indicates they have no other partners in the business — she is listed as president, with 75 percent of the stock, and her husband is listed as secretary and owner of the remaining 25 percent.

Leslie Thomas said she used the name, location and other information because she was in a rush to complete the application after attorneys she had consulted told her she needed to turn the application in to get ahead of a deadline before the law changed, she said, and she wanted to ensure they had the opportunity to have a distillery in the future.

“When we filled this out we had thought that, apparently there was something happening in Nashville and there was a deadline,” she said.

The new state law was approved by the Legislature in April and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam May 16. It takes effect July 1.

Distilleries are allowed in the county under existing law, but had not been allowed to sell their product on site without a package store license. Because of that, there hadn’t been much interest in building distilleries outside of Gatlinburg, the only place in the county that allowed the sale of liquor for off-premise consumption.

Under the new law, any business that gets a manufacturer’s license from the state would also be allowed to sell its product without further licensing.

The law would provide an opportunity for local governments to opt out of allowing distilleries. It provides a 45-day window where no person can file a notification of intent to pursue authorization to manufacture alcohol, and it gives the local government the opportunity to opt out of the law during that time, or anytime before such a notice is filed.

However, state officials confirmed that if a person or a company filed a request to build a distillery before the law passed, then local governments can’t prohibit them from moving ahead with that plan or stop other distilleries from doing so.

Pigeon Forge Mayor David Wear has indicated in the past that he would ask City Commission to opt out if it had the chance to do so.

n jfarrell@themountainpress.com