Alcohol Laws with a Twist

Most restaurateurs know the process of obtaining a liquor license can be delayed by license quotas and red tape, but the difficulties caused by weird alcohol laws don’t always stop after a restaurant’s license has been secured.

Alcohol laws in America are subject to state and local liquor laws, which have created a patchwork of inconsistent rules and regulations that can bog down operators and confuse out-of-town patrons who aren’t familiar with the area. Many of the restrictive alcohol laws in place today are hangovers from decades-old blue laws – or Sunday laws, which legally codified the Protestant tradition of observing a Sunday Sabbath – that have yet to be repealed or amended.

The “Zion Curtain”

Mormonism, a religion that instructs its followers to abstain from alcohol, is prevalent among Utah’s citizens, so it may not be surprising that our list starts there. Visit Salt Lake, a non-profit corporation that partners with Salt Lake County to encourage tourism, acknowledges and explains some of Utah’s restrictive drinking laws on its website’s Drinking in Utah section.

The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s website offers information on the different alcohol licenses the state offers, including on-premise beer licenses for taverns and recreational establishments; restaurant licenses for beer, limited service, and full service; and club licenses. Each license has its own regulations on when alcohol may be served, what type of alcohol can be served, or how much of the establishment’s revenue must come from non-alcoholic sales, and the state only issues a certain number of licenses each year.

The state of Utah separates alcohol into two categories: beer, which includes beer and light beer with an alcohol by weight percentage of 3.2 or less, and liquor, which includes wine, distilled and malt beverages, and “heavy” beer with an alcohol by weight percentage of 3.2 or higher. No matter which liquor license is obtained, heavy beer can only be sold in bottles, not offered on draft.

Although there are restrictions placed on the amount of liquor a cocktail can have – it can’t exceed 2.5 ounces – it’s a mandated 7-foot wall (yes, a literal wall) that causes restaurant operators the most headaches in Utah. A law passed in 2009 requires restaurants to build a partition, known colloquially as the “Zion Curtain,” that shields the drink-mixing area from patrons. It costs operators thousands of dollars, but opposing lawmakers haven’t successfully repealed the measure yet.

Update: In March 2017, a bill to repeal the wall mandate finally crashed through the state’s legislative body. HB0442 went into effect July 1, 2017, but as NPR reported, businesses will need approval prior to tearing down their partitions.

No Booze on Sundays

Not being able to order a morning mimosa may be a nightmare scenario for some Sunday brunch-goers, but many laws restricting Sunday alcohol sales in restaurants are being amended. In June 2016, members of the New York government agreed on legislation that, among other things, allows on-premise sales of alcohol to begin at 10 a.m. and introduced a limited number of special permits that would allow those sales to begin even earlier.

If mornings sans mimosas sound tough, what about not being able to sell guests a drink at all on Sundays? Until residents voted to allow Sunday alcohol sales in March 2016, establishments in Shelby County, Ala., had to be grandfathered in by a no-longer-available special license to let diners imbibe on Sundays. Many newly-wet counties in states with historically dry Sundays still don’t allow alcohol sales before noon, though.

Sunday Funday in full swing

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You Want Fries With That?

If you want to open a bar in Indiana that focuses on craft beer and specialty spirits, you’ll still need a way to offer patrons food. That’s because Indiana alcohol laws stipulate that “by the drink” establishments are required to offer a 25-person food service that must include “hot soups, hot sandwiches, coffee, milk, and soft drinks.” There are ways to comply with this law without actually employing a kitchen staff, including scheduling food trucks and letting guests have food delivered from nearby restaurants, but some establishments have gotten more creative: the Sun King Brewery in Indianapolis offers $10 Hot Pockets and Soup-Flavored Soup on its “Legally Required Food Menu.”

Closing Time

Unless your guests do choose your bar for its food menu, how late it stays open probably depends on when your area caps alcohol sales. In Mississippi, cities and counties can choose to extend hours for alcohol sales, but many stop the sale of alcohol at midnight. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, including Oxford, which allows sales to continue until 1 a.m. if the University of Mississippi has a home game, and Starkville, which follows the same extension for Mississippi State University home games.

Some casino resort areas in Mississippi, like Greenville and Vicksburg, allow 24-hour, seven-day-a-week alcohol sales, but all-day alcohol sales are protected by statewide law in Nevada. Although the majority of bars that never close are located in Las Vegas, it’s not unusual for bars in Nevada’s other major cities – Carson City and Reno – to offer service into the early morning hours. That means you could find a bar that also serves a breakfast menu, like the North Star Bar & Grill in Las Vegas.

Bottomless Bans

Unlike weird alcohol laws seemingly left over from Prohibition, bans on bottomless drinks, two-for-ones, and happy hours have been more recently adopted. The happy hour ban in Massachusetts is probably one of the most well-known, not only because it was one of the earliest bans in 1984, but also because of its very vocal opponents in Boston. In 2016, the “Bring Happy Hour to Boston” petition was sponsored by a Boston-based social media app; it has gathered more than 10,000 signatures, but hasn’t yet convinced legislators to lift the ban.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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