WILMINGTON — The former head of New Hanover County’s ABC Board left behind nearly fifteen years working with the state’s efforts to control alcohol sales in order to work in the private sector, now in charge of promoting sales of a North Carolina-based vodka.
Marnina Queen served as the chief executive officer of the county’s Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board for four years; prior to that, she worked for the Greensboro ABC and the state’s ABC Commission. Now she is vice president of sales at Social House Vodka, a Raleigh-based company founded in 2017 which produces liquor at its distillery in Kinston.
Queens leaves her $113,905-a-year position for the less certain waters of an upstart local distillery. She also leaves an agency that served two apparently conflicting goals: to sell liquor and, at the same time, to restrict the sales of liquor.
Queen said as a government employee she saw this as striving for balance and says she still sees it that way — although recently she’s put more emphasis on personal and social responsibility.
Mixed messages? Mixed drinks?
On the one hand, the ABC Board measures success in terms of selling liquor. The government monopoly of liquor sales is a financial boon for the county’s schools, and those sales were used to judge Queen’s performance. As ABC Boardmember Cedric Dickerson told WECT, liquor sales rose from $38 million in 2015 when Queen was named CEO to $48 million last year, despite extended closures due to Hurricane Florence. At the state level, the ABC Commission has boasted that North Carolina is the seventh-highest in liquor-sales revenue.
On the other hand, Queen has in the past pointed to the importance of restricting access to liquor, particularly compared to beer and wine. While she was CEO, Queen pointed to a website, created as part of an effort to lobby against legislation to dissolve the ABC system, that considered it a positive sign that North Carolina is ranked 44th lowest in liquor consumption.
“Liquor is a different product than beer and wine — and alcohol is not an ordinary commodity. Liquor has a much higher alcohol content. It’s going take someone much less time to become intoxicated on a bottle of spirits than it is on beer,” Queen said in May, adding that she felt the community “wanted stricter controls on spiritous liquor.”
Related: Head of New Hanover ABC opposes bill that would eliminate state monopoly on alcohol sales
As head of the county’s ABC, Queen was a staunch opponent of efforts to end the state monopoly on liquor sales, citing the potential for loss of revenue, a decrease in selection, an end to checks on liquor advertising (especially towards teens and children), and the increase in indiscriminate retailers willing to sell to underage or intoxicated customers.
But Queen also acknowledged shortcomings of the current system, and said she supported legislation — Senate Bill 290, signed into law in late July by Governor Roy Cooper — that would modernize ABC stores, including allowing in-store tastings. The law also allows liquor companies to sell an unlimited number of bottles directly to customers on distillery premises, as well as to serve mixed-drinks made with the company’s liquor. Queen also said she would support future legislation to allow stores to have longer hours, including being open on Sunday.
[Editor’s note: Queen invited Port City Daily to join her for a tasting at a local ABC store once the law took effect on September 1. Regrettably, her resignation foreclosed this opportunity.]
Queen said she didn’t see the ABC’s mandate to both increase sales and — at the same time — restrict them as paradoxical, saying it was instead about finding the right balance for the community.
“State governments are in the best position to balance access with control,” Queen said in May.
At her new job, as vice president of sales for Social House, she said she still sees it that way.
Selling liquor, social responsibility
Queen is quick to note that Social House is focused on local relationships, sourcing corn for its vodka from a multi-generational farm in Lenoir County just eight miles from the distillery. The water for the vodka is sourced from the nearby Black Creek aquifer; Queen notes it takes 10,000 years for water to make its way through the salt and peppers sands.
The company has also raised $4 million for charity events over the last two years, Queen said. And the company strives to be a net-zero operation, powering the distillery with “excess organic material” and supplying local farmers with the remainder (spent mash is increasingly being reused for a variety of agricultural purposes).
So, now that she’s selling what she believes to be the best vodka in North Carolina, does Queen feel differently about the state’s ABC system?
“I don’t — I still think that North Carolina is one of the hardest things to get into as a product. It’s very controlled. And I still think that the controls work. Because, you know, we have a great selection. And the money — I’ve always appreciated the revenue comes back to the municipality,” Queen said.
Queen did note that the modernization bill has “opened the doors to a more modern system. I think it gives everybody a little more opportunity.”
As for liquor consumption being responsible for increases in crime, domestic violence, and health issues, Queen hasn’t changed her mind — but her tone is slightly different. While she acknowledged it is the government’s job to protect people from health risks, Queen also said the issue is about personal social responsibility.
Asked if liquor still needed to be restricted for the population’s protection, Queen said:
“I think everybody needs to be socially responsible. So my view on that hasn’t changed. I mean, that people can enjoy spirits in a very responsible manner. And, and have a great experience with friends and a diverse community. So I would, I would say that, you know, I always wanted the outcome [of the ABC system] to be accessiblity. And, you know, that’s I think one of the things we talked about with government…but I think whether it’s an ABC store or a distillery we have a social responsibility.”
So, seeing things from the other side of regulation, does Queen still think we need government restriction of liquor sales?
“I’m kind of at a pause on that. Because I do like the control system,” Queen said. “And it’s, to me, it’s not necessarily a restriction, I don’t feel it’s a restricted. I think that as we push through these modernization bills, that we’re showing the community, that it’s a social responsibility of your own. I think the thing that the government tries to perform, other than anything, is stopping underage drinking…and I think the bottom line is what we need to continue to have a conversation about what’s best for our system.”
You can find Social House Vodka and licensed liquor-serving establishments around the state and at ABC stores, as well as at the company’s Kinston distillery, where Queen said she hopes to move forward with a “Social House Experience,” offering distillery tours, mixed-drink lessons, and more. Queen also said Social House looks forward to having tastings of its vodka at ABC stores.
For more information on Social House Vodka, visit the website or Facebook page.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.