When South Carolina goes to the polls Nov. 2, voters will be doing more than casting ballots for political leaders. They also will be putting in an order for how they want their cocktails served.
A constitutional amendment asks voters whether they want to do away with one of the state's modern peculiarities: a requirement that tiny bottles of liquor be used in restaurants and bars. South Carolina is the only state that does not allow bartenders to pour from regular-size bottles. Instead, for every drink, they have to open 1.7-ounce bottles of booze, such as the ones served on airplanes.
Supporters of free-pour liquor say mini-bottle-only drinks need to go the way of the Confederate battle flag and video gambling machines.
They say drinks will become cheaper and roads become safer because shots from normal-size bottles are much smaller.
"It makes no sense at all. Why keep a system that no one else uses?" Ben Rhodes asked during a recent happy hour at the Rhino Room in Columbia. "And if it makes drinks cheaper, that's even better."
But mini-bottle supporters argue that switching to free-pour drinks would leave taxpayers stuck with the tab because there would be less state revenue. They also say the change would allow unscrupulous bartenders to water drinks.
"Just because it's different doesn't mean it's wrong," said Suzie Riga, vice president of Green's Liquors, a wholesaler that supplies mini-bottles to restaurants and bars.
The mini-bottle came to South Carolina in the 1970s as part of a compromise that brought liquor by the drink. Those opposed to drinking figured that the 1.5-ounce bottles then used would encourage people to drink less.
At the time, South Carolina was one of almost two dozen states using the tiny bottles. But over the years, mini-bottles increased to 1.7 ounces as the makers went metric, and free-pour portions declined to an ounce. That, coupled with increasing costs of the little bottles, led all the other states to do away with them.
The little bottles have created headaches for bartenders.
Drinkers have to buy an entire mini-bottle to get any liquor. That can be a pain when preparing drinks such as Long Island iced teas, which are made from five liquors and come out to a knee-wobbling 8.5 ounces of booze per drink under the mini-bottle system. To avoid the problem, many bars have to serve Long Island iced teas by the pitcher.
And a drink such as a white Russian, which requires half as much Kahlua as vodka, cannot be made right at all.
"It's like baking a cake. All the same portions won't work," said Tom Sponseller, president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.
So far, the ballot issue has stirred up little controversy, but both sides expect a big push of newspaper and radio ads in the final weeks.
"One way or the other, I'll still be here drinking after Election Day," Adam Graham said at the Rhino Room. "So it doesn't matter to me."
Passing the amendment will not get rid of mini-bottles. Instead, it will give lawmakers authority to control liquor laws. Most supporters say the state Legislature would act quickly to pass a law that would add larger free-pour bottles while keeping mini-bottles as an option.
"Consumers will still have a choice," Sponseller said. "If they like the little bottles, there will still be people selling them."
But supporters of the tiny bottles argue that switching to free-pour drinks could open the state's liquor laws to yearly changes at the whim of lawmakers. They also believe it would reduce tax revenue because the mini-bottles are taxed so heavily and are easy to inventory.
With free-pour liquor, taxes would probably be charged per drink, and bar and restaurant owners could under-report sales, they say.
Riga also said businesses would have to spend a lot of money changing warehouses and liquor cabinets to store bigger bottles.