The Universal Notebook: The nuisance of ‘nips’

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When I drove into the drug store parking lot the other day I found myself parked in a litter of little plastic liquor bottles.

I mentioned this to an employee who told me they had someone who picked up the empty “nips” once or twice a day, but she dutifully grabbed a dustpan and brush and went outside and swept up 16 of the minis.

To save her the trouble, the state Legislature is currently considering LD 56, one of the simplest bills before the 128th Legislature. It calls for crossing out the words “of greater than 50 milliliters” in the statutory sentence, “For wine and spirits containers of greater than 50 milliliters, the refund value may not be less than 15¢” in Maine’s returnable container law. That five-word phrase would place a deposit on nips, giving folks an incentive to pick up the little plastic bottles that litter the parking lots and roadsides.

At a Feb. 1 hearing on the bill, Gregory Mineo, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, reported that Maine sold 8.4 million nips in fiscal year 2016 and expected to sell 12 million in fiscal 2017. Then he made an amazing statement: “This product size is growing predominantly due to one product: Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey (sic).”

Mineo meant Fireball Cinnamon Whisky (no “e” as Canadians spell it), a blended Canadian whisky flavored with cinnamon, bottled in Lewiston, and popular at the low end of the liquor market. All 16 nips the drug store clerk swept up around my car were Fireball bottles.

Have you ever taken a swig of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky? The spirit’s slogan is “Tastes like heaven, burns like hell,” but it should be “Smells like candy, tastes like mouthwash.” Fireball is to whisky what Natural Ice is to beer – cheap and sweet.

LD 56 is sponsored by Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, with nine Democratic and four Republican co-sponsors. The LePage administration is against it, as they are just about anything that makes good sense. (Note: Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill to prohibit life insurance companies from considering whether someone is an organ donor when setting rates was overridden last week 146-0. When you’re wrong, governor, you are completely wrong.)

Mineo testified that it might cost as much as $1 million to affix deposit stickers to nips, which come 120 to a case. Mark Bergeron of the DEP’s Bureau of Land Resources testified that a deposit on nips would be a burden on redemption centers and on the state. And Jay Hibbard of the Distilled Spirits Council argued that consumers must have nips because they would be reluctant to try new liquors if they had to buy pints or fifths without tasting them first; he called LD 56 “costly and anti-business.”

“Sensible and pro-environment” seems more like it.

LD 56 is really just a mini-expansion of the Maine bottle bill, which was a Republican initiative back in the day when Republicans still cared about the public interest. Former Republican state Sen. Horace Hildreth Jr. announced plans for a deposit on bottles and cans back in January 1971. Rep. David Ault, R-Wayne, sponsored that bill, which would have been the first bottle bill in the nation, but it failed in both 1971 and 1973. Then, in 1976, the bottle bill sponsored by Rep. John McKernan, R-Bangor, and lobbied for by attorney Angus King, was sent to referendum and passed easily.

The bottle bill did not go into effect until 1978, after it cleared challenges by opponents who argued that it would put stores out of business. Instead, the bottle bill cleaned up Maine’s roadsides and created a redemption business.

Maine’s new nip problem is in part a function of the questionable way Fireball is marketed. Most commodities are more expensive when sold in smaller pre-packed amounts, but Fireball is actually cheaper to buy as a nip (99 cents for 50 ml, or $14.85 for 750 ml) than it is as a fifth ($17 for 750 ml). When you see nips lined up behind store counters they are essentially pandering to folks who don’t have the money to buy a fifth at a time.

Maybe if they carried a 15-cent deposit, Fireball fans could just pick up enough empties to buy their next nip.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, tried to ban nips in order to reduce litter a few years ago, but a judge ruled that a city couldn’t prohibit something the state allows. So my solution would be for Maine to simply outlaw the sale of nips altogether as the environmental and social nuisance they are.

In the meantime, the Legislature should pass LD 56.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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  • Max Millard

    This was your first column that made me laugh out loud! I live in San Francisco and always see these little bottles littering the street, and now I know why. When I was growing up in Maine in the late ’50s and early ’60s, there were only glass bottles for soft drinks; a single-serving bottle had a 3-cent deposit and a big bottle brought 5 cents. Whenever my family went to Sebago Lake State Park, my sister and I made a small fortune by walking around to collect the bottles left by picnickers. Now almost all the bottles are plastic, and the deposit in California is 5 cents, which is a tiny fraction of the deposit from my childhood in real money. But now, the only people i see collecting them are adults. Anyways, I think a deposit for those nip-size bottles is an idea whose time has come.

    • Queenie42

      Your comment brought back memories of my brother and I collecting bottles with his little red wagon to get enough money to go to the movies at the old Rex theater. Those were the days.
      I loved San Francisco when I was there. Traveled up and down highway 101 but never saw Clint Eastwood in Carmel. Rats!
      Do you ever miss Maine?

      • Max Millard

        Yeah, I still have friends and some family in Maine, and I make a long visit there every couple of summers, staying at a vacation house at Little Sebago Lake. I attended the University of Maine at Portland with Edgar and with Al Diamon.in the late 1960s and am delighted to get both their columns every week. Together they help keep me in touch with my much beloved home state.

  • Chew H Bird

    Perhaps making the deposit on the nip bottles 25 cents might make even more “cents”… People trying something before buying a larger bottle are probably not trying the fireball…

    While I no longer drink, my wife and I will buy a nip size bottle or two for various recipes we are trying out. Back when I did partake, I would have considered the fireball product something that might have been popular with myself and my “local” buddies when we had already spent the better part of our paychecks and were living day to day, week to week…

  • Queenie42

    I have never heard of these little plastic bottles. I remember glass ones on airplane trips way back when. Some are probably collector’s items by now.
    I wonder if these bottles are BPA free. But then, I doubt if that’s an issue in this case.
    I agree there should be a deposit fee.
    What I can’t get over is the fact that this “curbside cocktail” is being glugged down for a quick pick me up and then the driver resumes their travel. Not too swift there, Chummy!

  • Jimmy_John67

    So Ed Beem, environmental warrior, sees 16 bottles on the ground but instead of picking them up and throwing them in the trash chooses to step over them and make someone else clean them up. Typical Ed! A champion of causes big and small as long as someone else is doing the work or footing the bill. Sad but not surprising as usual.

  • knighthawk

    outlawing them would be a very stupid solution, but otherwise a good article. I don’t think a bottle deposit would drastically change the litter situation, but if they are collectibles, there are people who will find them and take them.

  • PKM

    Once again you miss the bigger picture- someone is driving around after drinking 16 shots of liquor in a parking lot. Regarding two other pooints- do you think a deposit will encourage the kind of folks that drink in parking lots and throw the bottles on the ground will care about the deposit or that penny pinching Mainers are going to voluntarily clean up the Rite Aid parking lot to get a couple of bucks? How would being an organ donor change a life insurance rate? Thats a feel good measure- insurance rates are based on risk- sick people pay more. Organ donor or not really won’t have much to do with the rate you pay.