Barely Legal Distilling's social media marketing campaign nearly kept the prospective downtown Seward microdistillery from launching its operations.
"We tried to be really careful with this," company president Danny Petersen told the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission on Wednesday. "We didn't want to end up here."
At a hearing on the license request for the distillery's taproom, Petersen faced questioning about photos and a crowdfunding video for Barely Legal in which its founders said they had taken their product to the general public.
Hobert Rupe, executive director of the Liquor Commission, took issue with images of bottles filled with yellow and brown liquids bearing the distillery's label, since it has not yet received approval to make spirits in Nebraska.
And pictures of people toasting with alcohol — described as the company's "taste-testers" — at tailgates and other locations caused concern because Barely Legal cannot sell to the general public yet, Rupe said.
Petersen said the company hasn't made any liquor and they doesn't have distilling equipment set up.
He and his his business partners used lemonade or water and food coloring to mimic the product in bottles, and they let friends try a 70-proof caramel apple whisky they blended, as allowed by federal liquor regulations, Petersen said.
"It looks like you were rectifying, bottling and going out into the public and doing taste-testing," Rupe said.
Barely Legal Distilling is guilty of falling prey to a trap they set for themselves, the business' attorney Mike Kelley said.
"Anything we did was to let people know, 'Hey we're starting a distillery,'" Peterson said.
They wanted to build a mystique around their brand and planned microdistillery before they opened, and their efforts to raise money in a crowd-funding effort included bad marketing choices, he said.
Barely Legal Distilling received $85,000 in economic development funds from the city of Seward.
Petersen wants to start by distilling and selling flavored vodkas, then add flavored whisky and ultimately aged spirits, he said.
The bar would have beer taps and draw in a customer base before Barely Legal's distilled spirits are ready, he said.
Before approving the license for the bar, the two commissioners present added a condition that Barely Legal not violate any state or federal liquor laws.
Barely Legal's microdistillery license has received approval from the Seward City Council, and it will receive state approval unless new issues arise, according to the commission.
"We want to see Seward do well," Chairman Bob Batt said.