When Utah approved the 21st Amendment on Dec. 8, 1933, Americans from coast to coast had their radios tuned to the state's Repeal Convention as it took its historic deciding vote. Since that night, the nation's attention has not swayed from how Utah handles alcohol laws, albeit for different reasons.

Despite obscure or restrictive laws in practically every state, Utah laws attract far more attention. While some of that attention can be attributed to visitors confused by the state's laws and to heightened interest in the state because of the Olympics, Utah is not the only strict state with high tourist revenue, nor the first Olympic host with confusing liquor laws.

But one thing makes Utah's approach to alcohol control stand out — the motivation behind it.

"Utah is still the only state where the primary purpose is control," said Earl Dorius, Utah Alcohol Beverage Commission spokesman. "The other control states are about revenue."

So what, exactly, are Utah's liquor laws? Do they work, and if they do, why do they perpetually draw complaints from residents and visitors? What does Utah do differently from other states, especially those that surround the state and compete with Utah for tourist dollars?

The driving force

"Utah is a special place," says Dorothy Dalquist, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue. "You have your own way of dealing with whatever issues there are."

Colorado takes a narrower focus, Dalquist says. That state directs its enforcement efforts on keeping drinks away from minors or habitual drunkards, whereas Utah makes it much more difficult to simply find a drink.

What sets Utah apart? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While many liquor laws have some religious basis — for example, the heavy Baptist presence is often cited as the reason for dry counties in the Deep South — they cannot be as easily pinned on one dominating cultural presence as the Utah laws can be attributed to the LDS presence.

"The philosophy of the state, as it relates to liquor, is driven by the Mormon Church," Dorius said.

The most telling example of that is the private-club law, he said, which the LDS Church presented after a liquor-by-the-drink referendum failed in 1969. Realizing that non-Mormons needed some way to get mixed drinks, the church pushed the idea of nonprofit private clubs.

Ideally, the private clubs would not make any money on alcohol sales. Because clubs cannot charge more for alcohol than it costs them, the state would remain the only beneficiary of alcohol revenue.

That law has failed, as evidenced by the number of club owners driving Cadillacs, Dorius said. Not that the clubs make any money on alcohol sales; instead, they make money on the nonalcoholic mixers, ice or glasses, as well as the rent paid to the management company that is usually run by the same people who manage the nonprofit club.

"Basically, you drain the profits from the nonprofit," Dorius said. "(The private-club law) doesn't make any sense."

Members only

No other state has a private-club system comparable to Utah, although many other states have private clubs. Texas, for example, allows drinking in dry counties at private clubs, and Iowa allows gambling in private clubs. However, those are actually private, formed by exclusive groups such as the Elks or Eagles. To form a private club in other states usually requires a group with a common goal besides drinking. They are nonprofits, and the attractions usually include cheap liquor prices because state taxes are avoided. Members of Texas clubs, in fact, can buy their bar liquor, mixers and barware as a group instead of paying for each drink separately.

"This is the one area where we appear to be different," Dorius said. "Other states have (private clubs), but they're for different purposes."

According to Utah law, any place that serves mixed drinks without food must be a private club. Any person who wants a drink either has to purchase an annual membership of at least $12 or a two-week membership that costs $5. A person can also be sponsored by a member who they supposedly know, although that caveat if often ignored by clubs and members.

The law can intimidate visitors, although DABC Director Kenneth Wynn said that if servers would simply explain the law instead of complain about it, it would save them time and not sour people about Utah.

"The servers are the worst public relations," he said.

Navigating the law

Not that Utah is an oddity among neighboring states. Liquor laws are a diverse bunch in the West, where alcohol control ranges from the wide-open atmosphere of Nevada to the dry counties in Idaho and Arizona. Both Idaho and Colorado prohibit liquor-store sales on Sunday, and Idaho also closes its bars on election days. Beer sold in Colorado grocery stores cannot be more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, while Wyoming, despite its liberal reputation, makes grocery stores sell all alcohol from a separate liquor-store area.

Deseret News graphicDNews graphicWestern states liquor lawsRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Beyond the membership aspect, Utah private clubs also face other often complex restrictions. When ordering a mixed drink, a person can only get 1 ounce of a "primary liquor," which makes a genuine martini (2 ounces of vodka or gin) illegal but a Long Island iced tea (which has tequila, rum, vodka and gin) legal. A person cannot get a double shot, although he can get another 1 ounce shot of liquor as a sidecar. Happy hours with discounted drinks or free food are also prohibited.

"They work," Wynn said. "They wouldn't work in Wyoming or Nevada, but they work in Utah."

Colorado, another state with a tourism economy based on skiing, takes very few hits from visitors about its laws prohibiting Sunday sales or limiting beer sold in grocery stores to 3.2 percent alcohol or less. Colorado liquor laws receive little attention, Dalquist said.

"I haven't heard of any complaints. Alcohol is very easy to obtain, unless it's a Sunday," Dalquist said. "There are very strict laws about serving to minors or to anyone that is visibly drunk."

Unlike Utah's 3.2 law, however, "real" beer is often found next door to grocery stores in private liquor stores, and the bars can also serve "real" beer. Even tight restrictions on liquor store ownership that prevent anyone from having a financial interest in more than one store do not make the purchase of alcohol difficult.

21st-century bootlegging

Utahns who drink often flee their home state to purchase alcohol for a variety of reasons — not all of them based in fact. At Evanston's Yellowcreek Liquor Store, owner Brent Bateman sells a lot of brand-name beers that may or may not have a much higher alcohol content than the 3.2 Utah beer. He also sells a lot of liquor available from the Utah state liquor stores, primarily because of seemingly lower prices.

Although he could not estimate the percentage of his business that comes from Utah, he did say that most Utah customers come to Evanston only because it happens to be on the way to the Uinta Mountains or Flaming Gorge. The majority of customers who come to Evanston strictly for alcohol do so because of a lack of selection in Utah, especially of specialty wines or microbrew beer.

"The selection is an issue, and I hope it always is an issue," Bateman said. "The business we do get from Utah . . . would disappear, and it would hurt us."

Bootlegging is always a concern for Utah authorities, who worry about public safety and the loss of tax dollars because of out-of-state purchases. Then again, so do officials in most states, since nearly every state limits the amount of alcohol a person can bring from another state. Additionally, only a dozen states allow alcohol shipments, and those are almost exclusively wine-producing states.

Portsmouth, N.H., boasts the country's largest liquor store, at least according to Sgt. Jim Lyman with the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement. Because of cheap prices and no sales tax, people from throughout the Northeast make runs to the state-owned store in Portsmouth. To boost business even further, Lyman said that the state spends more on advertising its cheap prices throughout New England than Maine spends on liquor enforcement.

It is not uncommon, Lyman said, for stings to be set up at the borders to catch bootleggers (one gallon of hard liquor can be legally brought into Maine). "The most efficient way is to sit in the parking lot and get their license plate numbers."

At the same time, however, Maine is perfectly accommodating to Canadians who make trips to Maine because of their country's high taxes.

"Canada comes to Maine, and Maine goes to New Hampshire," he said. "It works both ways."

The Idaho border towns of Malad and Franklin always seem to attract a large Utah contingent, many of whom return to Utah with Idaho beer or liquor. Liquor stores in the Nevada towns of Wendover and Mesquite also sell a lot of their stock to Utah residents.

In those cases, however, the attraction of those towns often is more gambling than alcohol. Idaho has the Powerball lottery, which this summer reached almost $200 million, and Nevada has casinos.

"We come about every five weeks," Jolene Hackwell of Salt Lake City said on a typically crowded Sunday at La Tienda in Franklin. Usually, Hackwell is joined by her sisters, and they usually return with the "kind of beer you can't get in Utah."

"It's a girl thing," sister Patty Messner said. "It's a family outing."

Idaho and Wyoming authorities know their border towns serve Utah customers. Since both states are control states like Utah, neither minds the added revenue that Utahns give to each state.

"We know it happens, and we welcome it," said Lonnie Grey, Bureau Chief for Idaho's ABC enforcement. "It's more tax dollars for us."

The two extremes

If Utah is known for its liquor laws, Nevada may be known for a lack thereof. Most of those are laws dictated by the federal government for age limits and to prevent drunken driving; any other laws, zoning regulations and licensing requirements are left to the counties.

Many states allow their counties or cities to pass their own liquor laws, although most of those will only let local governments further tighten state law. Some places, like Idaho, permit locals to extend hours or allow Sunday sales despite state law. Only a few states leave liquor decisions almost exclusively in the hands of local governments, and two of those states — Louisiana and Nevada — have some of the United States' most liberal laws.

Nevada counties or cities very seldom go beyond state laws, which means that almost anywhere in the state a person can drink around the clock, purchase alcohol and drink it anywhere, and do so for a relatively small amount of money.

"We are a 24-hour town," said James Heyden, supervisor for the Clark County Department of Revenue. "We don't tell anyone when they can open or close."

Although the local-option liquor control has allowed liberal laws to flourish, it has also kept Prohibition alive in states throughout the South, where more than 200 dry counties can still be found.

Those laws top Utah's in creating confusion for travelers. In Texas, for example, Dallas visitors will find plenty of alcohol in some parts of the city, yet will find no alcohol in some of the suburbs. Oklahoma, like Utah, sells only 3.2 beer in the state. Much of Kentucky has remained dry, and voters have continually reaffirmed their desire to keep alcohol out of their counties.

About two-thirds of Alabama's counties are wet, yet draft beer is still illegal in some of those counties. The dry counties do attract curious questions from visitors, yet have pretty much died as an issue for Alabama residents, said Chief Roy Houlton of the Alabama Beverage Commission.

"As people have become more mobile, it has become less of an issue," he said. "It's a pretty well-accepted thing."

The tug-of-war

The majority often rules, and the LDS majority in Utah has continued to rule the state's liquor debate. If other states, especially those with a strong religious majority, can be looked at for a trend in liquor regulation, the economic majority of the tourist industry could gain more control of Utah's laws.

Idaho, where it is still illegal to open bars in unincorporated areas, has developed a number of specialty licenses for restaurants or resorts. Those licenses have primarily been issued to businesses around Sun Valley or in the McCall area north of Boise.

"It certainly has an effect," Idaho's ABC Bureau Chief Grey said. "Tourism does play a role in these licenses."

Along with Nevadans' proud tradition of minimal regulation, the tourist dollars play a major part in the lack of liquor laws, Nevada's Heyden said. Along with a lot of rural county towns, Clark County laws control what happens along the Las Vegas Strip.

"Our town is based on tourism, and we're the entertainment capital," he said. "They offer people what they want, and people often want to drink."

1 comment on this story

While tourism will continue to play a greater role in Utah's liquor laws, Dorius doubted that the Olympics would actually have as much of an impact on the laws as some people believe. Because of so many temporary licenses at live music venues, and especially because of various hospitality houses for each country, he said that visitors would probably not even attempt much wandering between the downtown bars.

"These people are coming for a few days, and that will be their experience," he said. "They will only venture out a little. It's much ado about nothing."


Contributing: Toby Hayes.

E-MAIL: jloftin@desnews.com