We sat down at a table outside a Utah bar and restaurant, dry and dusty from a day’s offroading in 40c heat in Moab. I ordered a beer from the waiter, my companions ordered beers and cocktails. The waiter took this down, asked what food we wanted with that. I explained that we had eaten already, and we just wanted the beers for now. The waiter shook his head, and explained that in Utah, you must order food with your alcohol. We left the bar quite baffled, still dry, trying to find a liquor store instead. So began our experience with Utah’s bizarre liquor laws – and how we came to realize that we had committed a criminal offence as soon as we set foot across the Utah state line.
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (UDABC) has keenly overseen the sale of alcoholic beverages since 1935 – only two years after the end of the infamous US alcohol Prohibition. Utah is a ‘control state’ – meaning the state itself has a monopoly over the wholesaling, and most of the retailing of booze. In fact, Utah state law meddles in almost all aspects of the sale, licencing, mixing, and consumption of alcohol. For starters, the state sets a limit of 3.2% alcohol by weight (4% by volume) in beer sold at grocery and convenience stores and in bars and restaurants. Beer above 4% by weight is considered by state law to be liquor, and as such, subject to a baffling array of bylaws and restrictions. Liquor, wine, and beer with strength above 3.2%, have to be acquired at a state-run liquor store. These stores have purposefully limited operating hours, are closed on Sundays, closed on holidays and are prohibitively expensive… Utah state law dictates that a liquor store may never display an ‘open’ sign under any circumstances – They may only turn off their ‘closed’ sign. Draught beer on tap is always 3.2% or lower, so the choice is limited, and you’ll find yourself purchasing much more during a session at the bar, if the desired endgame is to feel the effects of your alcohol.
Utah’s desire to govern your booze consumption stretches much further than personal drinking at home, however. If you’re a fan of the occasional beer in the sun outside a bar, or more of a wild night in the city, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control have a nice fat rulebook for you, too! In commercial premises, the times at which you may buy booze is limited, and alcohol cannot be sold later than 1am under any circumstances. As you can imagine, this curtails anyone with a penchant for the party quite severely. In addition, Cocktails or any other liquor-based beverage are strictly controlled – They may contain only 44.3 millimetres (1.5 fl oz) of liquor. This makes for some spectacularly shit cocktails. Watching a bartender try to work around these laws and put some punch in your punch is quite a spectacle to behold. We also found there was tight limits in the bar as to who was allowed to actually get the round in. In Utah it is illegal for the bartender to serve more than one liquor-based drink to any one person. That means that each person must go to the bar and order their drinks separately, or the bartender must bring them out to the group, and ensure that one people are not greedily downing all the drinks themselves. The idea behind this particular rule is an attempt to limit a person’s consumption. However, many bartenders say that this rules backfires spectacularly: On being told that they can’t order a second cocktail before they have finished their last, most patrons’ reaction is to chug their drink down – at which point the bartender may provide them with another. This results in a patron who has consumed their booze faster, and as a result, is more intoxicated than they would be otherwise!
So, aside from being cut off from drinking at the precise hour at which pretty much all of Spain considers appropriate to begin a night out, being served piss-weak beer, and drinking cocktails that won’t do a damn thing to alter your state of consciousness, arguably the most insane of all Utah’s zany liquor laws is the much lauded ‘Zion Curtain.’
The Zion curtain (in scathing reference to the Mormon church who pull the strings in Utah) is a very specific piece of equipment required of all restaurants serving liquor licenced after 2009. The Zion curtain is a partition that separates the bartender who is preparing alcoholic drinks from the customers who will be consuming them. These partitions are often made of frosted glass since they are required to be “solid, translucent, and permanent”. Our benevolent friends the UDABC mandated new restaurants that opened after 2009 mix alcoholic drinks behind a very specific 7-foot, 2-inch partition. The end purpose and goal of the Zion Curtain it must be assumed, is that by keeping alcohol out of sight, it also keeps it out of mind. Obviously, Utah’s religious lawmakers have learned no lessons from the USA’s own disastrous prohibition years, in which all alcohol was banned. In short – It didn’t work. People still had the same desire to drink booze, and prohibition only pushed the alcohol industry underground, into the hands of organized crime. In addition to lining the pockets of gangsters, it meant there was no more regulation within the industry. People drank corrosive mixtures of a chemicals which even resulted in people going blind on occasion.
Aside from musing on the curious throwback to a time when religion dictated the West’s legislature, it struck us that the Zion Curtain was not only an epic example of 18th century church mixing with 21st century state, it also has a more sinister overtone. As travellers, we must constantly be aware of the sadly very real threat of drink spiking, which can occur anywhere in the world. One of the girls in our group remarked that the Zion Curtain made her especially uneasy – How are we to know that the man behind the curtain isn’t friends with – or paid off by – some nefarious others in the shadows of this bar? When drinking in an unfamiliar establishment, one cannot be too careful. The Zion Curtain makes it that bit more difficult to exercise due care.
It is this complex spider’s web of restrictions, bylaws, and exhaustive legislature that led us to realize that we had in fact, committed a crime as soon as we crossed the Utah state line from neighbouring Colorado. As it turns out, carrying alcohol into Utah is like smuggling cocaine in from South America. All booze must be imported by; you guessed it, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The ‘trafficking’ of possession of any alcohol-based beverage that you didn’t purchase them is illegal. As a group, we were carrying between us: Two cases of hoppy Colorado IPA, several bottles of Modelo and Carta Blanca which had slid down the inside wings of our vehicle, approximately 12 bottles of margaritas, two litres of vodka, and two bottles of a very nice peaty Scotch whiskey. One can only imagine what a Utah State Trooper would have done had we been pulled over.
So, what lies behind Utah’s baffling array of restrictions on our favourite social lubricant? The answer is: The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints – To the layman – That’s the Mormons.
Perhaps it is the aging punk in me, or the residual defiance of authority left over from youth, or being an atheist, or being British. Maybe it is a combination of all of that, but something about Utah’s religiously based arcane liquor laws does not sit well with me. I am by nature a liberal-leaning person, and to visit a place in the Western world, whose laws are still dictated by the pervasive influence of the church, makes me very uneasy indeed.