It appears the 2009 Legislature will have to consider a major change in the state liquor law.

It boils down to this: Should Utah have liquor by the drink?

A few years ago, the answer would likely be no. But now the movement to have liquor by the drink is gaining momentum, both on Capitol Hill and at the liquor commission.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who is leading the effort, is not a Johnny-come-lately to liquor by the drink.

After his first election in 2004, Huntsman formed a number of transition teams — and his team on alcoholic beverage control suggested then that Utah's quirky private-club licenses be changed. Huntsman even appointed the head of that transition team to the Utah liquor commission.

Basically, Huntsman and some liquor board members want to go to two different kinds of private clubs licenses. Some clubs may decide to stay under the current system — where they sell memberships, either by the year or, for visitors, for a few days.

That would allow upper-crust clubs, like The New Yorker, to still decline memberships to some people — like maybe a bunch of Hells Angels — who might not fit in there.

Or, and this would be the big change, other private clubs could decide to not charge membership fees and would not try to control who comes into their clubs (aside from maybe putting a limit on the leather one can wear).

Since private clubs can sell liquor without also having to sell food (as restaurants with liquor licenses must do), one could walk into a private club, not have to buy a membership, sit down and have a drink.

And that, by any other name, is liquor by the drink.

Many states control liquor, either forcing all liquor to be purchased from state stores (like Utah) or having geographic areas (usually counties) that are completely dry — you can't buy a bottle or alcoholic drink in the whole county.

Huntsman says the private-club change is a matter of economic development and being tourist-friendly. He argues Utah's anti-drink reputation is wrong — but it's still there.

I once flew back from a national political convention sitting next to a nice little old lady coming to a veterans' convention in Salt Lake. She'd never been here before. She pointed down at her feet and said: "Look what I had to bring." She had a grocery sack full of liquor bottles, there must have been six fifths in there.

She was astounded to learn that she could get a drink with her dinner in most Utah restaurants or buy a club membership and drink without food. She thought there was no liquor in Utah, period.

(I decided to be nice and not inform her that it was illegal to bring liquor into the state unless you go to the liquor store, pay a tax and put a state label on it. She was confused enough.)

Anyway, we'll see if Utah changes one of its most misunderstood laws. One thing is clear: If leaders of the LDS Church oppose liquor by the drink, it will not pass the Legislature — where around 80 percent of lawmakers are members of the church.


Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]