A Strange History of Souses: the Nation’s Weirdest Drinking Laws

Last night I was doing my manly dinner duties, aka, running to the store to fetch wine and Parmesan cheese. I stopped into a relatively recent addition to the neighborhood, something I would describe as a “hipster grocery store”, for lack of a better term, knowing they would probably have non-canned cheese available. Much to my dismay, they apparently had no license to sell alcohol, as there was no wine or beer to be found.

I walked a few blocks further down Knickerbocker, to the Associated Supermarket, knowing that they sold beer, and thus, would probably sell wine. No dice. After posting a puzzled status update to FaceBook, it was confirmed to me that New York is in fact, one of several states in which the sale of wine in grocery stores is prohibited.

A rifle through the Internet revealed some interesting history. One of the odder tidbits concerns the city’s first open container laws, passed by Ed Koch in 1979. It was originally pitched as a quality of life measure to cut down on the number of derelicts imbibing on city streets and sidewalks, with Councilman Frederick Samuel reassuring constituents that, “We do not recklessly expect the police to give a summons to a Con Ed worker having a beer with his lunch.”

Most relevant, however, is a provision that allows only a single individual living within a few miles of his or her business and holding no other liquor licenses in the state to sell spirits and wine for off-premises consumption. This restriction is unique to New York City, and part of the city’s long-standing but swiftly crumbling opposition to chain businesses. Basically, it means only sole proprietors can sell liquor and wine.

This is a good idea in theory, I suppose. The smokescreen of supporting local business is often invoked by proponents, who say that you’re blessed with a myriad of options from knowledgable wine-slingers rather than subjected to the generic stocks of a soulless entity like CostCo or Whole Foods (or, y’know, a neighborhood chain grocery store). In reality, and especially in neighborhoods like Bushwick that are swiftly becoming gentrified but are still, in certain respects, food deserts, it means that liquor store owners are given permission by the state to not give a shit. The Discount Liquor store I ended up going into was filled with a poorly organized selection of bottles and tended to by a disinterested clerk who clearly made most of his money from the folks who wander in and buy marked-down rotgut whiskey.

For a city with some of the most relaxed liquor laws in the Northeast this is an oddly restrictive practice, but as is the case with many NYC regulatory curiosities, it’s mostly about commerce. It will be interesting to see how this law holds up as the city gentrifies further, and its constituents (presumably) become more vocal about consumer advocacy.

The aforementioned FaceBook comment thread brought the proclamation from my friend Ian that the three weirdest states in terms of alcohol laws and restriction were Utah, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Let’s take a look, shall we?

They’re not messing around

Utah is one of the 18 “control states” in the union, meaning that the state government controls a significant portion of the alcohol sold for retail or wholesale within the state. This means there are spooky state-run liquor stores, which are also the only places that one can purchase beer for off-premises consumption with an ABV% higher than 3.2 (I had a personal experience with this, when my brother and I split a six pack during a road trip and were mystified at our complete lack of buzz). Liquor and stronger beer can be purchased in restaurants and bars or nightclubs that are licensed to sell liquor. The serving cutoff time is 1am. Enforcement has apparently been relaxed in recent years, partly due to complaints from members of the Olympic International Committee during the 2002 Winter games. There have been a lot of inching reforms over the past several years, including a loosening of laws that supposedly prohibited restaurant patrons from drinking alcohol before ordering food, after a series of controversial citations were administered to grown adults who apparently can’t be trusted to follow the state’s archaic religious nanny-state regulations.

An SC Dispensary-issue bottle

Speaking of history, there’s a lot of it to be found in South Carolina’s liquor laws (and probably more than I can adequately explore within the confines of this article). In 1892, a “dispensary system” by which the state completely controlled the wholesale and retail sale of alcohol was established in response to mounting pressure from the state’s growing prohibitionist faction. It’s clear that history repeats itself, as the dispensary system was more or less a brilliant ploy by Governor Ben Tillman to appear to capitulate (at least partly) to the demand for prohibition. In actuality, the dispensary system allowed for rampant corruption by the state politicians who controlled it (they sold political offices and accepted bribes from local distillers, and embezzled untold amounts from the dispensary itself), and helped Tillman secure a seat in the United States Senate, where he would remain until his death in 1918 (a full two years after the dispensary system had been dismantled by the General Assembly).

Today, liquor is available for off-premises consumption only between 9am and 7pm, and banned outright on Sundays. Beer and wine sales vary from county to county, with some allowing sales 24 hours per day, seven days a week, and some bars remaining open until 7 or 8 in the morning, but recent pressures have more or less established a 2am closing time for most, except by special permit (which has a provision against events that “violate the public peace”). The strangest bit of rule-mongering? Until 2006, South Carolina was the last state in the union that mandated cocktails and liquor drinks served in bars to be made with mini-bottles, aka “airplane bottles”. In what might go down as the most dunderheaded move by teetotaler legislators, the impetus behind the law was to standardize the amount of alcohol served in each drink, and to allow for easier taxation. It was somehow overlooked that mini-bottles contain 1.75 oz of liquor, whereas the free-pour drinks sold by bars in every other state contained only 1.2 oz. Basically, the state government forced bars into over-serving. Whoops.

Take your state-approved allocation of spirits and get out, Citizen!

The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry “Alcohol laws of Pennsylvania” reads as follows: “The alcohol laws of Pennsylvania contain many peculiarities not found in other states, and are considered some of the strictest regulations in the United States.” Strap in.

Pennsylvania is another “control state”, and wine and liquor may only be purchased at those same spooky, State-run stores, but there is also a “Limited Winery License” that can be acquired by a winery (in our out of state) that produces less than 200,00 gallons per year. Businesses that hold these licenses can sell their wine in their own shops, to state-run stores, or ship directly to customers. Strangely, there’s also a note indicating the wineries are permitted to sell “wine or liquor scented candles”.

Beer gets confusing. It is available for on-premises consumption at bars, restaurants, and available for off-premises consumption at licensed beer stores and distributors, but they typically only sell in bulk, meaning cases (24 beers) or kegs. However, patrons can purchase six-packs, twelve-packs, and individual 24oz and 40oz bottles directly from bars and restaurants, in quantities not to exceed 192 oz per purchase (!). Stranger still, many grocery stores have begun offering beer for sale at restaurants attached to the store, but only under very strict guidelines (the restaurants must have a clear separation from the rest of the store, a separate cashier, and seating for 30 customers or more). A convenience store called Sheetz in Altoona, PA obtained a liquor license for an attached restaurant, and the ensuing debate went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately decided that Sheetz could only sell liquor for off-premises consumption if it allowed on-premises consumption as well (??).

Bars and restaurants are forced to close at 2am, as is the case in most of the country. However, unlike most states, minors are barred from consuming alcohol under any circumstances, even when provided by a parent or guardian, and even when consumed for religious or medicinal reasons. Minors can also be charged with “constructive possession” by simply being in the general vicinity of alcohol being consumed illegally. Hasn’t anybody told Pennsylvania that the children are our future?

No liquor on Sundays, but this is OK

In the interest of self-examination, I’m going to take a look at the laws of my native state, the finger-wagging but selectively lax Republic of Texas. Like a lot of other states, Texas raised its minimum drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1984, to comply with a federal law that would cut highway funds to the state by as much as 10%. Beer and wine are available at grocery stores and convenience stores between the hours of 7am and midnight Monday through Friday, and between 7am Saturday morning through 1am Sunday morning, and at Noon on Sunday through midnight. The same holds true for alcohol purchased in restaurants (to be consumed on premises only), but on Sundays from 10am to noon, liquor, wine, and beer are only available for purchase when ordering food.

Liquor is only available for off-premises consumption at liquor stores (which are privately owned) from 10am to 9pm, Monday through Saturday. No liquor may be purchased for off-premises consumption on Sunday. Bars and restaurants state-wide may sell beer, wine, and liquor with the same restrictions (save for the Sunday ban). Apparently, a 2am closing time is legal only in counties and cities where such hours are approved, and require a special license. However, from my own personal experience, this encompasses basically any county in Texas where bars are allowed to operate.

There’s also a strange yet seldom enforced rule that I can’t find much documentation on, but that I have seen selectively enforced. As the legend goes, legislators were facing stepped up pressure to restrict serving amounts in order to cut down on drunk driving deaths, and arrived at a limit of two drinks per customer per transaction. The so-called “beer and a shot” rule was put in place so that someone might be able to chase their shot immediately with a beer. Like I said, I can’t find much evidence to support this being a hard and fast law, and its very seldom enforced, as people will often take turns buying rounds, and I have never seen anyone in a bar refused when ordering three, four, or even five drinks at a time. However, there is a bar in Downtown Austin which serves $4.50 pitchers of Lone Star beer during happy hour (5-8pm) on Fridays, and in accordance with the supposed “beer and a shot” rule, the purchase of said pitchers is limited to one per two customers. The employees at this establishment are very proactive about enforcing this rule, supposedly because the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission would put them in serious hot water if they weren’t. Still, I have been served a pitcher of beer while waiting for other friends in different bars before and have never been given a second glance.

Texas is additionally divided by a bizarrely byzantine system of wet and dry counties, and exceptions and special licenses that can be applied. There are 18 “dry” counties, in which all sales of alcohol are illegal, and 47 “wet counties” in which all sales are legal. That means the 189 remaining counties are a strange mix of wet and dry neighborhoods, which can be navigated with the help of the exceedingly odd “Unicard” system. Certain dry areas allow for the limited sale of alcoholic beverages by “private clubs”. The spirit of this exception was (supposedly) to allow organizations like the Freemasons or whatever to have bars in their clubhouses, but in practice, hundreds of restaurants throughout the state simply declare themselves private clubs, which you can join by purchasing a Unicard, which basically serves as your membership ID in these so-called “clubs”, which often charge no fee, or only a nominal one, to join. Essentially, it’s a pass to drink in dry areas. Come to think of it, the Unicard system is little more than an updated, more bureaucratically annoying version of South Carolina’s Dispensary system: it’s a way for the state government to appear to kowtow to the hand-wringing of teetotalers while still making booze readily available to people who want it. History repeats itself, as we’ve learned.

Looking back at this research, I think I’ll have to disagree with Ian and place Pennsylvania as the most bizarrely restricted state in the union (that I know of). Its laws and regulations aren’t just restrictive, they’re flat-out strange and nonsensical in terms of what is and is not allowed. A common theme running throughout all of this: everything is gradually being challenged, and, most likely, slowly changing. Will we one day find ourselves in a country in which every state’s alcohol laws are as libertarian as Louisiana?

My old (and perhaps oldest) friend Ben once recounted a trip to New Orleans, in which he walked into a Crystal Burger at 3am, shirtless, and drinking from a cup filled with Jack Daniels. He described putting his drink down on the counter to order, and the employee behind the counter yawning as he rang up another routine transaction.

“That,” Ben concluded, “is freedom.”

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