The End of Prohibition (Sort Of)

On a completely unrelated topic…

Just wanted to take a moment to recognize that July 1st marks a new cultural era in the state of Utah. Those of you familiar with Utah know that this place has long been known (and ridiculed) for its arcane and often bizarre alcohol laws. I should emphasize the word “arcane,” in the sense of, “understood by few.” I have lived in this state for 12 years, and to this day I’m not sure I understand half of the laws regarding the purchase and serving of alcohol in public establishments. Trying to explain these laws to out-of-state visitors was always frustrating, and usually ended with something like, “I’m not sure anyone really knows.”

The most well-known and understood of these was the “private club” law. Establishments whose receipts due to alcohol were greater than a certain percentage compared to food (not sure what it was…maybe 50%) were forced to become “private clubs” and charge membership fees at the door. Usually it was along the lines of $5, and the membership was good for three weeks or so. Technically, you couldn’t just walk in and purchase a membership, you had to be “sponsored” by a current member who could vouch for you. In practice, however, that didn’t seem to happen very often.

That was perhaps the most straightforward of them. There was also the one about the “Zion curtain,” a barrier that had to be placed in eating establishments between the bar area and the dining tables to shield the sensitive diners from the sinful goings-on behind the bar, although it seemed like not all places had one. And I never could figure out the laws governing what types of alcohol were allowed in non-private clubs, or some of the bizarre laws regarding the serving of alcohol (like, in some cases, bartenders being unable to directly deliver drinks to patrons at the bar, instead having to go through a server intermediary). One longtime bar owner in Salt Lake City likened the private-club era to “living behind the Iron Curtain.” It was enough to make you not want to bother, which I suppose might have been the point.

But now, all of that is gone. Well, at least most of it.

I would postulate that three events likely contributed to the repealing of our arcane liquor laws. The first was probably the 2002 Winter Olympics, which brought a huge number of people into the state for their first visit. My guess is that, once outsiders realized how special this place really is, many of them wanted to return often, or even stay for good. So that likely contributed to a large influx of tourists and new residents over the subsequent years, which helped to raise public awareness of the eccentricity of the alcohol laws.

The second contributing event was probably the election of our now-departing Governor, Jon Huntsman. Huntsman recognized the public embarrassment of these laws and the likely impact they were having lately on tourism. He made it a goal of his to address the state’s alcohol laws, which normally would be considered political suicide here. But Huntsman knew he was only going to serve two terms at the most, and then move on to a presidential run or, as it turns out, an important diplomatic position, so it was worth the shot. And he held true to his word.

The final contributing event, some would argue, is the recent death of former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley. I’m not LDS myself, so I can’t say I know much about the man, but it was fairly well publicized that he was against any loosening of Utah’s liquor laws. In fact, another longtime Salt Lake bar owner recalled speaking to LDS Church lobbyists and being told that as long as Hinckley was alive, the state “would never get rid of private clubs.” (Some might wonder why this is relevant given the whole separation of church and state thing here in America, but we Utahns stopped wondering about that a long time ago.) Now, just 18 months after Hinckley’s passing, what was once unthinkable here in Utah has now come to pass.

That’s not to say all of the weirdness has gone. Yes, we can now walk into an establishment and order a drink of any kind without buying a membership or, at least in some places, without also buying food. Things are now much simpler, and more normal. I can get regular (non-3.2%) beer at any bar, and I can get my drink right from the bartender, with no server needed.

Still, establishments are now broken down into three groups: restaurants, dining clubs, and social clubs. A lot of the distinction has to do with how minors are dealt with, the percentage of receipts for food, and the way some alcohol is handled. Restaurants now must have at least 70% of revenue from food, and restaurant diners must order food with any drinks. Then there are some weird things, like restaurant diners may not wander from one table to another with a drink in their hand. Plus, remnants of the “Zion Curtain” remain: new restaurants (current ones are grandfathered in) cannot have a “bar”, and if any drink mixing is to be done, it must be in a secluded room or behind an 8-foot high wall, so that sensitive diners can’t see it actually happening.

So we’re not completely rid of the craziness, but for the most part, we’ve embraced normalcy.

To quote Morpheus from “The Matrix”: Welcome…to the real world.

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  1. Diego / Kimari / IndigoStatic
    Posted July 2, 2009 at 8:02 PM | Permalink

    …. ooookaaay, I didn't know about any of that, so forgive me for going "WHAT?!" on you.
    I mean, what's the point? Those laws are just ridiculous!
    Although I have to admit that "so that sensitive diners can't see it actually happening" is pretty funny. Because, you know, people are always so offended at the sight of alcohol.

    (Is it possible that I am being just a little bit too ignorant here? I mean, I don't see exactly why these laws were necessary in the first place)

  2. The Rampant Coyote
    Posted July 4, 2009 at 12:16 AM | Permalink

    Well, I *AM* LDS. I don't drink alcohol. But I also come from out-of-state… I grew up around the East Coast. So while I never paid the liquor laws any attention, I did recognize that things were a bit different around here – particularly in restaurants. Though I kinda got used to it over time.

    The only thing I can figure is that it was one of those "well-meaning" laws that was supposed to "protect out youth" or not encourage them to drink. Out of sight, out of mind, or something like that.

    Yeah. I don't buy it with video games, either. I actually think it's counter-productive. If you want kids to not pick up drinking – or smoking, or even more dangerous activities – you don't hide it and speak of it in hushed tones and attribute some kind of fascinating taboo or mystique around it. You educate. You don't want their first exposure to these things – or even the first time they think about it – to be when a friend is encouraging them to try it.

    So yeah. As far as the liquor laws, I can't say they ever made sense to me, and I'm not at all upset to see them relaxed.

  3. Rubes
    Posted July 5, 2009 at 1:25 PM | Permalink

    I agree that at least part of the motivation behind the laws was well-meaning, but I don't believe it's entirely the case given how irrational and contradictory many of them were. I'm also not so cynical as to believe that they were created entirely at the urging of the religious establishment as a means of ostracizing those who drink alcohol. The truth, I think, is somewhere in between.

    I agree with you that "protecting our youth" was a big component of the argument in favor of the laws, although my guess is that it was also just the most public of the components. And, as you say, it's not a very good argument given that it's not a very effective way of accomplishing the goal.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 10:35 AM | Permalink

    I'm a Utah Mormon myself, born and raised. There's an aspect of this that I think most people outside Utah (and a good many Utahns) don't get: most of us just don't care. I know less about alcohol and drinking than Ken Jennings claimed to know. It's not something that crosses my mind often at all. And I think that's pretty typical. A candidate for state legislature or governor is going to give alcohol issues no campaign attention whatsoever; the voters don't care. And it's hard to get up public sympathy for the poor oppressed drinkers. Who cares about their goofy habits?
    So congratulations to Utah drinkers, I guess. It's no skin off my nose.

  5. Rubes
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 12:05 PM | Permalink

    I have also found that to be the case with most of the Mormons that I know here, and I agree that it's probably the typical way of feeling. As with many things, it has likely been the more vocal extreme with the strongest convictions that has dictated the evolution of the laws.

    But that's part of the problem with restrictive laws: it takes an equally vocal and impassioned opposing view to change things, given that the vast majority of people generally don't care one way or the other. And, with respect to alcohol laws, those few in favor of less restrictive laws haven't been terribly fervent about it as to effect change. It's just not a big political issue.

    Considering that Huntsman made alcohol law reform a specific goal of his, I'm not sure I agree with your comments about campaign attention. But it's not just that, I think it is also not unlike many (if not most) political issues during a campaign: the majority of people don't care one way or another. The choice of whether to tackle an issue depends on the political consequences of doing so from the smaller percentage of people on either side who do care. And let's face it, although the majority of people here probably don't care one way or the other, the conservative folk here who were happy with restrictive laws have far outnumbered the liberal folk who sought less restriction.

    Huntsman successfully argued this time, however, that the financial impact was important enough to overcome the perceived negative consequences of reform.

    Sure, most people don't care. But for those of us who do drink, it's a wonderful change.

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