The narrative around Utah's liquor laws always seems to have played out like a well-worn comedy skit. First-time visitors and newly-arrived residents would often find themselves stepping into a seemingly unsolvable maze. Sometimes it was best just to look at it as a perplexing puzzle … a challenge or rite of passage … that stood between them and a thirst-quenching pint or a delectable wine pairing.
Were the liquor laws in Utah just a tad overwhelming? You bet they were! But fear not, thirsty traveler, for a wave of change has washed over this desert state!
Why bring up this boozy topic, you ask? Because, it's a common burning question on the lips of many who are either contemplating a visit or have just set foot on Utah soil. They’ve heard things you know.
Sure, as any seasoned Utah resident would tell you, quenching your thirst with your cocktail of choice has never been an insurmountable task. Yet, something monumental did occur on July 1, 2009.
The tectonic plates of Utah's liquor legislation moved when Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. took a pen in his hand and signed a groundbreaking bill. It dragged Utah's liquor laws kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
The mythical “private club requirement,” an antiquated relic from 1969, was dismissed with a swift stroke of the Governor's pen. This historic action revolutionized how restaurants, bars, and clubs served drinks forever altering Utah's drinking landscape. It also shattered one of the feeble arguments that other states had brandished to woo tourists their way and away from Utah.
Private clubs? Thing of the past! Prior to this legislation, to enjoy a "drink" in Utah, one had to either be a member of a private club or be invited by a member of said club. That was, of course a well-known joke, as any so-called member could sign you in at the door whether they knew you or not. With the ever-present backing of the Mormon Church, this regulation had sought to control and limit alcohol consumption.
When I first set foot in Utah, I quickly realized that despite the hoops, one could indeed enjoy a grog. There were a crazy number of “beer bars” here. Micro-breweries didn’t exist though. Hard liquor and wine in a bottle were only sold in state liquor stores. Actually, that’s still the case.
But Utah liquor laws seemed to make it so much more difficult than in other places. And, even if it wasn’t, everyone I knew thought it was so they complained about it. So, what changed and why did we raise our glasses to it?
What does this mean for you? Simply put, if you're legally allowed to drink … that's 21 years old in Utah … you can enjoy any type of alcoholic beverage you want. And without the rigmarole of obtaining a private club membership.
So, if you've heard the whispers of Utah's quirky liquor laws and think you can't wet your whistle, rest assured, that's a tall tale. Local radio host and long-time resident Tom Barberi once quipped that he never thought he’d see the day when adulthood was legislated in Utah.
Barberi, originator of the term "Utah by 5" (a homage to my beloved Utah Utes), Barberi was one of my favorite all-time Utah personalities. Someone who came here like me from out-of-state and stayed here because he loved it. At least a lot of it.
Being treated like a rational adult while visiting has now become significantly easier. Does this mean that it's all smooth sailing? Not quite. There are still a few kinks to work out.
For instance, wine and hard liquor bottles can only be purchased from government-run stores which often offer a disappointing selection. Beer, however, can be grabbed from your local grocery or convenience store.
In what may be called the biggest alcohol policy shift in Utah since the end of Prohibition, 3.2 beer was legislated away to make room for heavier brews, 4% alcohol-by-weight in 2019. These beers are more commonly marketed as 5% alcohol-by-volume.
Utahns had been waiting for this for 86 years!
Do be aware that the BAC … sometimes called the blood alcohol concentration (the legal limit) … was lowered to .05 grams/dL in 2018. This doesn’t mean .05% as most people think but it is the lowest legal limit in the US.
Every place has its peculiarities. Been to Kansas lately? As a native of Canada, the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan have some of the strangest liquor laws anywhere. But Utah, with its unique charm, is now a more welcoming place for those seeking to enjoy a good drink. Cheers to that.
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