State Liquor Laws: Historically Irrelevant Or Actually Worth Something?

Show of hands? How many times did you drink alcohol when you were under age? Did you ever get busted? What about driving with a little bit of a buzz? We’ve all been there. You go out to dinner and have an extra glass of wine but since you’re not going to be driving that far anyway it doesn’t matter, right?

If you were driving in El Salvador while under the influence, it could kill you. Not just from the potential of an accident but actually getting arrested for a DUI. A first time offense could come with the death penalty. Sounds a bit extreme but there are plenty of arcane liquor laws still on the books here and abroad. Are they doing what they were originally intended to do, or is it one of those things everyone ignores with a wink and a nod? Consider these laws currently on the books:

Utah Zion Curtain

Many bizarre liquor laws can trace their roots back several decades and sometimes even a century. Utah’s “Zion Curtain Law” goes all the way back to 2009. Okay, so not that far back in history. It states that any restaurant opened after 2009 has to pour their drinks behind a pane of frosted glass. This is the so-called Zion Curtain. The idea is to not offend non-drinkers or stir up longings for booze in teens that might be in the restaurant. So, it’s okay to actually drink those cocktails, you just can’t see them being mixed because that would be bad.

Pennsylvania 600

In Pennsylvania, if you want to buy wine or liquor, your only option would be one of the 600 state-run liquor stores. It’s the only place to get your booze. Don’t even try to buy liquor from outside the state and bring it in. That’s against the law too. Recently, a Philly wine aficionado was slapped with fines and had his collection of 2,447 bottles of fine wine confiscated. The wine fan also happens to be a lawyer so naturally he sued the state. The result was that he was allowed to keep 1,000 bottles (worth around $150K) but the rest have to be dumped out. Can you say, “Prohibition?”

Beer Soup Nebraska

According to recent surveys, microbreweries make up around 11% of the beer market and that number keeps ticking up. If you happen to be operating one of those microbreweries in Nebraska, you better have some good soup recipes, too. A Nebraska law holds that a bar can’t serve beer unless they are also cooking a batch of soup. This harkens back to a time when it was thought that drinking on an empty stomach gets you more buzzed. Makes sense, but there isn’t a law forcing people to eat the soup.

Dry Kentucky

Every connoisseur of whiskey knows the finest bourbons come from Kentucky. Too bad if you’re a Kentuckian and live in one of the 39 countries that are “dry.” These would be places that prohibit all sales of alcohol. That often includes counties where the distilleries are up and running. Thankfully, some smarter heads have prevailed and created the “historic loophole.” This allows distilleries to sell their concoctions on-site along the Bourbon Trail. It takes a lot of effort for the locals to sample the home brew.

Puritanical Massachusetts

If the Quakers of Pennsylvania set the tone for that state’s liquor laws, then you can thank the Puritans of Massachusetts for all their statewide restrictions. Here’s how one portion of the state law reads:

No licensee or employee or agent of a licensee shall encourage or permit, on the licensed premises, any game or contest that involves drinking or awarding of drinks as prizes.

So much for beer pong. But the state also has restrictions on drink specials and bans happy hour all together. Plus, the supermarkets who sell beer and wine can only do so in limited areas. In other words, if a grocery chain has twenty stores, only a handful can sell booze.

Around the World

Don’t think that America holds sway over byzantine liquor laws. There are plenty of spots around the world where you could run afoul of the local law enforcement. In Scotland, if you’re drunk, then you can’t be in possession of a cow. It’s amazing how often that scenario pops up. In Bolivia, if you’re a married woman, then you can only have one glass of wine at a bar or restaurant. Guess who that law doesn’t apply to? Men. In Malaysia, if a man gets caught drunk driving, both he and his wife can go to jail. Talk about spousal support.

The Impact

It’s clear that many of these laws are just downright insane, especially in areas that actively promote liquor sales such as Las Vegas or New Orleans. Still, there is every reason to believe that common sense laws like age restrictions do have an impact where it matters the most: on young drivers.

The National Center for Health Statistics data reveals that in 2013, there were 1,700 fatalities of 15 to 20 year-olds directly related to motor vehicle accidents. Of that number, at least one third can be attributed to alcohol-related incidents. Although that is a decrease from 2012, it is still way too much.

Building on that data, the Pediatric Academic Societies gathered a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School to conduct a study about the impact of alcohol restrictions on the occurrence of drunken driving related deaths. It should come as no surprise that states with the stronger laws had fewer deaths. Of course, this is not the only study to draw the same conclusions. Many of the laws that are meant to curb alcohol consumption in adults result in decreases in underage drinking levels as well.

“In fact, policies targeting the overall population of adults and youth — policies like taxes, limits on hours and locations of sales, and strict rules on drinking and driving for everyone, not just youth — appeared to be the most protective,” said lead author Dr. Scott Hadland to Medical Daily.

This Spot’s For You

Beyond the liquor laws that limit drinking hours and who can buy liquor, there are also restrictions on advertising. Before the government stepped in as they did with cigarette television ads, the alcohol industry stepped up with their own version of a “no-buy list.” This is why you won’t see an ad for Bud during Sponge Bob Square Pants. Still, even with the self-imposed industry restrictions, some researchers think that over the course of their young lives, kids are exposed to alcohol ads upwards of 15 billion times, collectively. That is a lot of exposure for that can generate the idea that “drinking is fun.”

Start Them Young

On the other end of the restriction spectrum is anthropology professor Dwight Heath of Brown University. He thinks the legal drinking age should be around 8. This doesn’t mean he wants to see eight-year-olds riding up to a liquor store on their Big Wheel to pick up a Forty. Instead, he has conducted studies and written about the cultural model of consumption that happens in countries like France or Italy, where parents will often serve the youngsters wine during family meals. Heath thinks this practice demystifies the allure of alcohol. Having grown up in Europe, I can attest to this mentality.

“In general, the younger people start to drink the safer they are,” said to Heath to CNN. “When introduced early, alcohol has no mystique. It’s no big deal. By contrast, where it’s banned until age 21, there’s something of the ‘forbidden fruit’ syndrome.”

Most countries around the world, with the exception of America, have the legal drinking age set at 18, with places like Denmark and Germany allowing 16-year-olds to buy beer and wine. Perhaps there is something to be found in that demystifying approach. It’s hard to imagine someone binge drinking if they’ve grown up with wine all their lives.

As with all things in life, it might just come down to a question of moderation and personal responsibility. Do we really need laws to tell us we shouldn’t be drinking around the clock? (Las Vegas excluded.) How out of control are our kids that we don’t know what they’re up to? Remember back to when you were a teen. Sooner or later, kids are going to have a drink. It’s the foundation that parents provide for taking responsibility that could determine if that is one drink or dozens.

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Holly Whitman is a writer and journalist based in Washington DC. She loves to share her thoughts on the intersection of politics and culture, and writes on everything from feminism and human rights to climate change and technology.

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32 thoughts on “State Liquor Laws: Historically Irrelevant Or Actually Worth Something?

  1. Until recently, you couldn’t buy booze in Colorado on Sunday. Moreover, you couldn’t buy 3.2 beer at the 7/11 on Sunday. On Sundays, you had best have bought your booze the day before.

    Also, there remains a law in Colorado that 7/11 (and grocery stores, for that matter) cannot sell full-strength beer. Yep. 3.2 beer only. Drink all day long, safely. (No wine or stronger either.)

    We’ve got a thing on the ballot coming up saying that grocery stores will soon be able to sell beer/wine and full strength at that. I don’t know that it’ll pass. I mean, we passed recreational weed. Do people really need to be able to buy wine at the grocery store?


    • I’m waiting to see if the supporters — who have already started running TV ads — play the winning argument: convenience. So far, it’s mostly been more like “Look how many other states already do this; you wouldn’t want Colorado to be out of step, would you?” Instead they need the dad, with a cart with chips and salsa and charcoal adding the beer. Or a young couple picking up fresh produce and putting it into the cart where the wine sits. One less errand stop, that much time saved for something else.


      • A few months back, when I went to the grocery store, they had a poor benighted clerk standing out front collecting petition signatures. (Pretty sure it was a clerk.)

        It made me realize that, now that pot was legal, I hadn’t seen a guy collecting signatures for petitions for years. The old hook was “wanna sign this petition legalizing pot? Now that you’re done, wanna sign this petition limiting housing starts between Powers Blvd and Mark Sheffield Road?” Without the petition legalizing pot, you’re going to get approximately 7 signatures for any given boring old petition.

        Until, of course, the grocery store puts their own person in front of the store.


        • Last petition I saw was the Jefferson County school board recall. The organizers just put volunteers outside all of the public libraries. People were lined up waiting to sign. (Note to Colorado conservatives — if you had asked me, I would have told you that AP US History in a well-to-do suburban school district was not the place to start diddling with the curriculum.)

          The single-payer initiative seemed to collect 150K signatures very quickly, but I don’t remember ever seeing anyone with a petition. Wonder where they were?


  2. Many of the Protestant majority countries got the Prohibition bug during 19th century and a lot of liquor laws reflect this. Germany was the exception of course. Considering how many Americans see drugs and sex, I can’t see our treatment of alcohol getting lighter anytime soon. I mean, we’re the country that created DARE.


  3. I will say this, many people used to drink around the clock. This was mainly because everything was unsafe to drink.


    • The other main reason for this was that you might not be able to transport your grains to market given their bulk with the poor transportation networks at the time. If you distilled them they were less bulky so easier to transport, would keep longer and brought a good price.

      One of the best books on this subject is The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition


    • One funny consequence of this is the people who insist that when the Bible says “wine” it really means “grape juice” because the Bible can’t have been endorsing drinking alcohol.

      Just try to keep grape juice from fermenting in the Middle East using Bronze Age technology – non-farmers likely never saw grape juice that wasn’t wine…


      • 19th Century American Protestantism could get very eclectic. German Protestant immigrants got into conflict with Anglo-Protestants because they couldn’t quite understand what was wrong with drinking beer and doing fun things after church on Sunday.


  4. Many jurisdictions make an exception to the ban on underage drinking if the alcohol is provided by an immediate family member in, and consumed in, the home. In other words, you can give your teenage a glass of wine at dinner, but you can’t invite all his friends over for a beer bash.

    Oh, and that Massachusetts law seems to me to be very sensible. Do we really want bartenders egging college students on to drink to toxic levels?


  5. Lot’s of states have crazy booze laws. My state had crazy “blue laws” up till the mid to late 80s/early 90s. Store’s were not open on Sunday, only grocery stores, etc.

    And let’s not forget the DISTRIBUTORS. They have an active interest in restricting more liberal booze laws since many states, mine included, have laws making vendors buy through one or two distributors. Ergo, the selections are limited.


    • Giving states wide latitude in regulating alcohol was the political price for repealing Prohibition. Just like with the drug war, there were many people who believed in Prohibition till the very end and wanted it to continue indefinitely. There were other people who realized that it wasn’t working but still loathed alcohol like many people know that the drug war is a failure but still hate narcotics. Not everybody against Prohibition was a libertine drinker. It was the middle group that was needed to get enough votes to repeal Prohibition. Giving them a wide ability to regulate alcohol was the political price.


  6. I live in PA. Beer stores also can’t sell less than 1/2 cases unless they are “take out” stores with licenses to serve food and alcohol.

    No. These regulations are not good.


    • How many other states have you bought liquor in?
      If we must have a monopoly (and yes, many states have monopolies that aren’t run by the state), the state tends to do a better job.


  7. On the subject of drinking, how do Americans who live in places with very bad or non-existent public transportation and taxis go out drinking? In New York, you can take a subway, taxi, or now Uber home. People still drink and drive but you have options. There are some other cities like this. Most Americans seem to live in places where you want to go out drinking means you have to drive at the level to trigger DUI because the threshold is low. Do most Americans just drive drunk?


        • Long answer, people try to make various plans to avoid it – just have a couple, have a DD, (combination of (a) and (b) between partners, where one person in the couple will agree to just have one or two), try to drink as locally as possible. But they’re just not consistently executed at all. So the short answer ends up being right quite often.

          In m experience you have a lot of buzzed driving, and then a few very serious cases of people who get busted for driving blind drunk five, six, seven times. Obviously without a license in many of the later cases.


  8. Moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, where there are no bottled/canned liquor/beer sales on Sundays (recently a growler loophole was passed, but, meh, growlers).

    Really crimps my style.


  9. A Nebraska law holds that a bar can’t serve beer unless they are also cooking a batch of soup. This harkens back to a time when it was thought that drinking on an empty stomach gets you more buzzed. Makes sense, but there isn’t a law forcing people to eat the soup.

    What do you mean ‘when it was thought…’? As far as I know, you will get drunk faster an empty stomach. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it’s something to do with digestion speed, and I bet you actually do get ‘as’ drunk if you drink while eating, it’s just spread over a longer time.

    That said…that’s not why such laws exist. My town does not have ‘bars’. My town just has restaurants that sell alcohol, and that’s enforced by requiring them to make at least half their revenue from not-alcohol. (At least, that used to be the law, don’t know anymore.)

    What that *actually* has resulted in, of course, are places that are restaurants during the day, and they slowly turn into bars at night.

    But, despite that policy looking like a failure, it has resulted in exactly the outcome desired: No dive bars.

    Making the places operate a kitchen, *even if* that kitchen mostly shuts down at night, apparently classes those places up enough. (Just having a wait staff probably helps a lot.)

    That is probably the origin of the Nebraska law also.


    • A Nebraska law holds that a bar can’t serve beer unless they are also cooking a batch of soup.

      This appears to be an urban legend (rural legend?). I checked with a friend back there, and am told that the world “soup” appears exactly once in current statute. Soup kitchens are one of the public services which are not required to verify lawful presence in the country before dispensing benefits [§4-110(5)].

      She says it is possible that such a requirement occurred in some old city ordinance. Small towns are notorious for just leaving stuff in their municipal code forever.


  10. For decades I’ve been telling people that we should lower the drinking age to 12. When I was a lad, you could drive at 16 and drink at 18 (now 21). Young men are notoriously bad drivers for their first several years, and then you hit them with booze. Recipe for disaster. Instead, give them 4 years to learn to hold their liquor before they get behind the wheel. Now I see that a genuine expert agrees with me (I won’t quibble about the exact age).


  11. In Malaysia, if a man gets caught drunk driving, both he and his wife can go to jail. Talk about spousal support.

    This isn’t entirely nuts. If he’s drunk and she’s sober, why isn’t she driving? And if they’re both drunk, they’re arguably both culpable.

    I assumed the Bolivian law had to do with pregnancy and birth defects, based on the naive assumption that only married women were having sex, and that being Catholics they don’t use birth control, but I looked it up and apparently it is, in fact, based on the concerns about sexual morality. Although I don’t fully understand why it only applies to married women.


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