Visiting family for the holidays can mean endless hours of driving, navigating unfamiliar roads, and for many, the frustration of trying to figure out where you can buy that bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau you promised you'd pick up. Thanks to the bizarre remnants of prohibition that still have a hold over alcohol distribution laws in the United States, knowing when and where to buy booze can be a complicated logic puzzle that would make even SAT question writers squirm.
Take Pennsylvania as an example, it's one of the strictest states. Say you're hosting a party, and want to buy a case of cheap beer, a couple of twelve packs of the nice stuff, a few bottles of wine, and a handle of tequila. Here's how that adventure would go: First, you'd need to go to a privately run beer distributor to purchase the keg, since they're the only ones licensed for that. But beer distributors can't sell anything smaller than a case or a keg, so for the twelve packs, you'd have to head elsewhere. You move on to the nearest grocery store for that, but once you're there, you realize that they don't have an 'eating place retail dispenser license,' which means that you can only purchase 192 oz of beer at a time (for those who don't want to solve an algebra problem just to get a drink, that's 16 twelve-ounce beers). To get around that bizarre restriction, you buy one twelve pack, walk to your car, drop it off, and walk back in to buy the second one. Now it's off to the state-run liquor store, the only place you can buy wine and tequila. By the time you've done all that, you're now late for your own party. Meanwhile, someone throwing the same party in Washington, DC was able to order everything online and have it delivered to their door.
Why are alcohol laws so convoluted? And why does it vary so widely from state to state, or even county to county?
Towards the end of Prohibition, the country was largely fed up with the "noble experiment." Citizens were hungry for the tax revenues and jobs brought about by the alcohol industry, and tired of the crime wave surrounding the bootleg and speakeasy industry, but the puritanical sentiments of the Temperance Party that brought about the movement in the first place were still at large, and change was was slow. Although the 21st amendment, ending prohibition, was passed and ratified in 1933, many states kept local, statewide temperance laws. Mississippi stayed fully dry until 1966, and even today only around half the counties allow alcohol sales, so good luck picking up a Pinot Noir there! Immediately following the end of prohibition, lawmakers created an intricate web of licensing requirements and taxes to keep citizens from crawling back to the bottle.
Now, more than eighty years after the repeal of prohibition, we still haven't managed to shake off those laws. It's a tough pill to swallow for consumers, but getting rid of the laws and regulations is a huge undertaking with a lot of nuances. One of the most interesting examples of a group fighting to keep the existing restrictions in place can be found in quota states. Quota states limit the number of liquor licenses available for bars and restaurants by only allowing one license per x number of people. Utah, the most extreme example, only allows one license per every 4,925 people. For those hoping to open their own bar, this posed a significant barrier. But in 2012, a state law was passed allowing alcohol license holders to sell their license to a qualified seller, creating a secondary market for licenses. If a new bar owner was willing to pay enough money, they could take over an existing license and spend years paying off the loans they more than likely needed to take out to get it. Come time for them to retire, however, they had an investment that they could sell for tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Any push to remove the quota also stands to drive up competition and remove all value from that liquor license.
In the end, the bulk of the burden is still on consumers, which doesn't help in the already stressful climate of the holiday season. Selecting the perfect wine for Thanksgiving is a difficult enough task without having to spend hours searching for a place to buy it. There are a few resources, such as Legal Beer and State Liquor Laws that have information about local laws, but information is often contradictory and out of date. Finding out exactly what laws exist in what areas is still frustrating enough to drive anyone to drink. So if you sitting around the dinner table with empty glasses thanks to an unsuccessful quest to navigate the labyrinth of local liquor laws, at least you can strike up a conversation about the fascinating ways antiquated, agenda-filled laws affect everyday life in America.
Maybe now you need a strong, classic drink, like an Old-Fashioned?