Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and GOP legislators say they want to make Utah's liquor laws a little less odd and at the same time reduce the amount of alcohol potentially available in mixed drinks.
But some bar owners say the proposal may actually make the laws even more weird, ban many mixed drinks they now offer and end up making more patrons drunk more quickly.
Huntsman and legislators are proposing to eliminate smaller side shots, sometimes called "sidecars," that Utah drinkers now may order and pour into their main cocktails to add size, variety and zip.
In exchange for banning sidecars, lawmakers would allow more alcohol into primary mixed drinks but a patron could have only one drink at a time before him or her.
"The trade-off was to get rid of sidecars but have a mixed drink that would meet most of what is expected in other states," said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem. "I think it will help our tourism industry" by eliminating the somewhat odd sidecars.
He added that the change would help "make Utah's liquor laws make sense in a way that people from other states will understand but also in a way that discourages consumption" by potentially allowing less alcohol overall in a mixed drink.
Currently, the law allow bars or restaurants to serve a mixed drink that contains one ounce of alcohol in the primary pour, plus up to 1.75 ounces of "flavoring" with other alcoholic spirits. Then patrons can also order a "sidecar," or another one-ounce shot of alcohol that they may add to the main cocktail.
Under the new proposal that eliminates sidecars, mixed drinks could have a primary pour of up to 1.5 ounces of alcohol plus a half ounce of flavoring.
Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the change means mixed drinks could have up to 2 ounces of alcohol (including spirit flavorings), instead of the 2.75 ounces they could have under current law if a sidecar shot were added.
Dave Morris, owner of the Piper Down pub and a board member of the Utah Hospitality Association, said the change could eliminate 40 percent of the specialty drinks on his menu by not allowing enough overall alcohol or volume to make them, such as Long Island teas, Long Beaches, Mai Tais and other larger tropical drinks.
He adds that the change may also make patrons drunk more easily. While about 60 percent of the drinks he sells now are one-ounce shots, he predicts they would all become the maximum-allowed 1.5 ounce shots. "Everyone's going to be doing 1.5 ounce shots, or no one will go to your bar because they will think you are a cheapskate."
So, he adds, "If you are used to having a couple of beers and a couple of shots, well, you just had one more drink than usual" because of the 50 percent higher alcoholic content in the shots. He said that could be the difference between driving drunk or not.
Morris said most people he has talked to in the hospitality industry oppose the change, but said it could help some restaurant owners that cater more to drinks like martinis. He said that contrary to what leaders say, "I think it will only increase the perception that our liquor laws are weird especially if you can't get a lot of basic specialty drinks."
Lisa Roskelley, spokeswoman for Huntsman, said he proposed the change as a step toward helping out-of-state visitors to view Utah's liquor laws as more normal. She said normalizing alcohol laws was recommended by his transition team when he took office, and he has been working on steps ever since.
Valentine said Huntsman asked the Legislature to look at the proposal. "The governor really made a good case that we have provisions in our liquor laws that actually encourage consumption by encouraging people to buy sidecars," which brought GOP Senate leadership on board.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is often the proverbial, unseen 800-pound gorilla in the room on liquor issues, had no immediate comment about the proposal. But Bramble said that while legislators have not met with church leaders formally on the issue, "I suspect they are probably not against this."
The bill has not yet been written, but Senate Majority Whip Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful, opened a bill file to draft the legislation on Monday. Valentine said GOP senators plan to discuss the issue during their caucus today.
Valentine said the proposed change does not mean Utahns should expect other major liquor law changes, such as doing away with the need to join private clubs to be served liquor by the drink. Valentine said he prefers that system, because clubs can revoke memberships of those who drink too much.However, a bill by Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, to allow selling alcoholic beverages on election days was endorsed Monday by the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions, and now moves to the full Senate.