Booze blues: Utah's laws make it tricky to get a drink

If you like Utah, and also like to imbibe, better get used to the rules. The list is long.

In the Beehive State, it is illegal to have an alcoholic drink while looking at a restaurant menu and preparing to order. Any server caught bringing a drink to a patron before taking the order could get his or her boss in big trouble: The State Bureau of Investigation could suspend the restaurant’s liquor license for up to a month or impose a fine of up to $3,000. And don’t even think about ordering glass No. 2 before finishing the first one. It’s illegal.

The locals generally live with it, but for visitors, the quaint rules can be a surprise, said Francis Liong, an LA transplant who owns Lamb's Grill in Salt Lake City.


"Some people get upset about it, especially when you are coming from a big city on business and you want a martini or a glass of wine before you order," said Liong.

It seems there’s no end to Utah’s pesky booze rules. Prefer to have the vino at home? The only place to buy it is a state-run store where the markup, by some estimates, is 86 percent. And if your tastes run toward beer, you can buy that at the same store – but it only comes at room temperature. Enjoy a martini? Fine, but the hard stuff is measured by machine, dispensed through systems calibrated to pour exactly 1.5 ounces, according to Vickie Ashby of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Utah is by no means the nation's only place with strict regulations on getting a drink. Dry counties scatter the country and the U.S. Department of Treasury categorizes 18 states as 'control' states, meaning in places like, West Virginia, for instance, when you buy a bottle of liquor, the state is the wholesaler.

But no state seems to take alcohol control to the level that Utah does. Some business owners, residents and politicians in Utah agree with visitors who say it’s downright weird.

"You can't get a double shot here," said Liong, who said he misses the bars in California, but relocated for family reasons.

The recent Outdoor Retailer convention drew some 20,000 to Salt Lake City, in an event the city hopes to bring back in the future. But Liong said apprising the visitors of the do's and don'ts of getting a drink "makes it hard for a restaurant to appease guests and to make money, too."

Liong said the hoops his guests must jump through also seems to diminish their thirst – which hurts his bottom line.

The laws aren’t even simply the vestiges of a bygone era. More recent regulations require that new restaurants and bars keep a curtain over the location of alcohol in restaurants and bars. Mixed drinks must be concocted away from sight in what is known as a 'service area.' This bit of drapery has been dubbed the 'Zion Curtain' by many in the local restaurant industry, in reference to the Mormon population, which also holds a majority in the state legislature.

"They basically forbid drinking," said Jake Shannon, chair of the Utah Libertarian Party. "They consider it defiling your body, that sort of thing, and so because of that it's rippled out. And unfortunately, because they want to live that way, they vote that way...there are those of us who aren't Mormon, it affects us as well."

In 2009, former governor and Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, signed some of the biggest transformations to the states laws in four decades. Thanks to the teetotaling former governor, it is no longer necessary to pay a fee and fill out paperwork to get into a private club for a beer or other intoxicating refreshment.

Huntsman said at the time, he signed the legislation for economic and touristic reasons.

Restaurant owners say the current situation is still bad for business in a state that hosts world class skiing and an endless stream of convention visitors and tourists. For instance, the annual Sundance Film Festival just wrapped.

But Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's administration defends the laws.

"We find that businesses who are looking to relocate or expand in Utah quickly find that Utah laws have been generally normalized over the years,” Office of Economic Development Executive Director Spencer Eccles told “Many business leaders first experience Utah as a tourist, and then they return to consider Utah for business expansion."

There was an outcry by businesses after media reports at the beginning of the year revealed in the month of December, the booze cops had gone undercover and upped the number of violations they distributed. Afterward, the state said it would no longer continue on that path.

But the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control makes no apologies. It says it's just enforcing laws that have been there for decades.

"The purpose of control is to make liquor available to those adults who choose to drink responsibly -- but not to promote the sale of liquor,” the department states on its website. “By keeping liquor out of the private marketplace, no economic incentives are created to maximize sales, open more liquor stores or sell to underage persons."

Shannon says he believes that in ten years time, Utah's laws will loosen up. Right now, he just hopes for shorter lines at the state run store.

"It creates a tremendous bottle neck," Shannon said, especially when it comes to holidays, like New Year's, when lines were out the door. "It's almost like the Soviet Union with toilet paper."