Thursday, July 21, 2011

Utah's Confusing Liquor Laws

As a newcomer to Utah, here is an interesting topic and one that is often brought up by friends who don't live here. To help you understand what goes on here, you can refer to a recent article in the New York Times about the confusing status of liquor laws in Utah. Click on the link to see the article entitled: Utah Liquor Laws, As Mixed up as Some Drinks. You can also click here to go straight to the source.

The situation in Utah is mixed up and confusing, especially as it has been changing over the past few years. Many of my friends still assume, or assumed until I corrected them, that Utah is still a place where bars are set up as private clubs that you have to join in order to enter and buy a drink. I am not sure when that changed, but since I have been here (May 2010) that is not the case. There are bars and brew pubs everywhere and many restaurants serve alcohol. You have no problem going out to dinner and having a drink or out for drinks at a bar and finding a place to do so. I believe that the liquor laws started easing up during/after the 2002 Winter Olympics were held here, and then the easement of restrictions has continued (somewhat) due to such an increase in state tourism.

I guess the things that have been most noticeable and different and frustrating for me about Utah and its crazy liquor laws are as follows.

1) In any place where you might order a drink, bartenders have to strictly measure the pour. This means that every glass of wine is going to be poured to a measured line and never more. Forget about a generous pour of a good glass of wine by a generous bartender every once in awhile, and forget about a stiff cocktail. Unless you want to make them at home. Most of the time you don't notice this, but sometimes you do when you order a weak cocktail or notice the puniness of your expensive glass of wine.

2) As noted above, all beer, wine and liquor is sold in state controlled liquor stores. The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (UDABC) has regulated the sale of alcohol in Utah since 1935, two years after prohibition. Utah is one of 18 control states meaning the state has a monopoly over wholesaling and retailing alcoholic beverages.Other states besides Utah control the sale of their liquor this way, so that is not that unusual. Even in Virginia where I lived for many years you have to buy your liquor in a state store. But you could always buy beer and wine at grocery stores and wine stores.

Surprising to me, you can buy beer here at the grocery store. But it is some weird version of your brand name beers with less alcohol (no more than 3.2%). I couldn't believe all these beer companies make a special version that has less alcohol. Is there a larger market for this kind of beer than in Utah? I had never heard of this before I moved here. I am not a huge beer drinker and it doesn't taste any different to me, but it just seems odd. You can buy normal beer in the liquor stores.

I don't drink much, so I don't mind going to a state store to buy liquor and beer, but I do hate having to go there for wine. I love, love, love wine and was spoiled by living in the Washington, DC area for so many years with its fabulous selection of specialty wine stores. I love a good wine stop and a manager who really loves and knows his or her wine. Shopping and often tasting in places like that was such a nice treat. No more of that living out here. You don't get tastings. You don't get special deals. You don't get a very good selection and variety. It isn't horrible, but it isn't very good. I would say out of all of the differences with liquor laws out here in Utah, that is the only one that really bothers me. I don't care much about the others.

The NYT article references a blog called Drink SLC - two guys trying to visit and report on all of Salt Lake City's 118 bars. This could be a good reference to newcomers like me, and possible visitors/tourists like you, to figure out where to go in this town. We don't go out much, and mostly just for dinner, so we don't know much about the bar and nightlife here.

So, no more misinformation. Some of the seemingly abnormal restrictions you will find here you will find in other US states. You can drink in Utah. Utah has liquor stores. You can find nice bars and restaurants just like in every other state and you don't have to join a private club. Just don't expect a generous pour, a stiff drink, or a great selection of wine. Unless you are at my house.

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