When a young George Washington sampled New Jersey "cyder spirits," he was so impressed he asked the distillery for its recipe. That spirit was applejack, known as "Jersey lightning."

Distilleries were active in New Jersey throughout its early history. And, as anyone who has watched HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" knows, during Prohibition, the state was a hub for both importing and distilling illegal alcohol.

Since the days of rumrunners and hidden stills, however, the industry has faded.

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Laird & Co., in Monmouth County, still bottles spirits in New Jersey - and sells them all over the country - but stopped distilling in the state in 1972.

Now, entrepreneurs interested in creating their own whiskeys and rums are trying to revive that industry. They see an opportunity in the artisan movement, which has lured discriminating consumers to microbreweries and small wineries. The only real obstacle is that the state's distillery licensing laws are stuck in the Prohibition era.

Earlier this year, Jersey Artisan Distilling in Fairfield, Essex County, became the first new distillery to open in the state since at least 1933. To do so, its owners had to pay $12,500 for a plenary distillery license. By way of comparison, the licenses for small breweries and wineries cost $938.

Other would-be distillers - in Camden, Princeton and Milford - are ready to go, but they see the steep license fee as a deal-breaker.

But there is good news for anyone who enjoys the taste of fine spirits - or who thinks government fees shouldn't be a bar to entrepreneurship.

After going nowhere in previous legislative sessions, a bill (A3518) sponsored by Assembly members Reed Gusciora, D-Hunterdon, Mercer, and Connie Wagner, D-Bergen, Passaic, to allow craft distilleries was approved last week by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.

The bill would create a craft-distillery license with a $938 annual fee for businesses that manufacture less than 20,000 gallons of spirits. It would allow them to sell spirits for consumption on premises. Visitors would also be able to buy up to five liters of spirits to take with them, and the distilleries would be able to sell to wholesalers and retailers. Craft distilleries would be prohibited from selling food.

The more reasonable license fee could spark a cottage industry - New York has 22 licensed craft distilleries - and create some jobs. Small-batch distilleries might also form a new tourism niche, and help farmers and other suppliers. Distilleries that certify that at least 51 percent of their ingredients come from the Garden State would be able to label their products "New Jersey distilled."

More important, the state should simply get out of the way of enterprising businesspeople who want to try something new - even if, in this case, it's something old.

The craft-distillery bill is a good idea, and we're happy to raise a glass in support.


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