Serious Eats: Drinks

Oddball Liquor Laws Around the U.S.A.

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[Photograph: Don Nunn on Flickr]

When I was finally of age to buy hooch, I was living in Indiana, and Indiana doesn't make it all that easy. For example, liquor stores have to be closed on Sundays. Grocery stores can't sell beer or wine on Sundays, either. Nor on Christmas. Nor, at the time I lived there, on Election Day. You could vote stupid, but apparently Indiana didn't want you voting drunk. Indiana is, in fact, the only state in the country that still bans all off-premise Sunday sales of alcohol.

So imagine my surprise during a road trip down south. I stopped with my friends in Mississippi, where we planned to stay for the night. We looked for a liquor store, but the nearest one was closed. Instead, we found a gas station. Oh! Cold beer! But wait, confusion! It's Sunday!

I took a couple of sixes up to the clerk and asked, "Can I buy this?" She looked at me dumbfounded and said, "Um. Is there any reason you shouldn't?" SCORE. I don't mind feeling stupid as long as there's beer involved.

A year later, I moved to Brooklyn and had to navigate another set of laws. Cold beer in groceries, check! Wine in groceries, uh sometimes. Beer, wine, or liquor on Sundays: NOPE.

Wait, What? I just moved to Brooklyn, and the laws are as tight as they are in Indiana? But that changed a few years later. The Legislature first passed a bill allowing liquor stores to open Sunday as long as they closed another day of the week. In other words, stores could still only be open six days, but one of those days could now be Sunday. Then, a year or so later, the law changed again, allowing seven-day-a-week sales.

Want to buy some cheap wine from Trader Joe's in New York? You can't. Well, you can, but not at the same time you buy your groceries. Instead, you need to schlep over to 14th Street in Manhattan and head to Trader Joe's Wine Shop, located a couple of doors down from the Trader Joe's grocery.

On-premise consumption is allowed in New York from 8 a.m. until 4 a.m., and trust me, I tried once to stretch a day's worth of drinking into those 20 hours. A misdemeanor charge later, I decided it was a bad idea.

That long preamble out of the way, I'll turn now to some of the oddball laws that exist around the country. Remember from last week's piece that states and localities are free, thanks to the 21st Amendment, to set their own liquor laws. The results are confusing, often exasperating, and sometimes funny.

Sir, Put Down the Sangria

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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

In 2006, a tapas restaurant in Virginia was fined for serving sangria. Why? It seems the restaurant violated an obscure 1934 law banning the mixture of wine and spirits, and since their sangria used wine and brandy, the eatery was in violation. The Virginia Legislature later passed a law allowing sangria sales.

Don't Feed the Animals

Who will think of the children? What about the animals? In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it's unlawful to provide alcohol or tobacco to animals in public parks. Presumably, if you find a squirrel in your yard, it's okay to invite her down from the tree for a Mai Tai and a cigar.

Frances Willard Day

South Carolina public schools, by law, devote the fourth Friday of every October to teaching kids about the dangers of overindulgence. Frances Willard died of alcohol poisoning after her fourth keg stand at a Tri Delt party at Clemson.

No, no, that's a sick joke. Willard was a suffragist and temperance reformer who helped pass the Eighteenth and Nineteenth amendments to the Constitution (Prohibition and Women's Suffrage, respectively) and was an early president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

Growlers

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[Photograph: Beaufort's TheDigitel on Flickr]

Growler laws vary state by state. Maryland, for example, allows only five establishments (all brewpubs) to refill growers. Some states, such as Florida, ban growler refills altogether. Delaware's governor signed a bill into law in May 2013 allowing liquor stores to sell and fill growlers on site. Prior to that law, growlers could only be filled at brewpubs or breweries. In California, a brewery can refill a growler, even from another brewery, but it must cover over old labels with new ones that show the name of the brewery, and the name and alcohol content of the beer.

No Point to Low Point

Several states (Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah) permit only "low-point" beer—anything 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% by volume—to be sold in groceries and convenience stores. Stronger beers can only be sold in liquor stores.

No Happiness Allowed

Happy-hour laws vary from state to state, and even from community to community. Some states, such as Massachusetts, ban happy hours outright. (Bar owners get creative, though; since they legally can't offer drink specials, they offer food discounts instead.) Others have no statewide bans, but allow communities to allow or ban happy hours. Still other states, such as Oregon, allow bars and restaurants to offer happy-hour promotions, but bar them from advertising the promotions.

But Wait!

I'm only scratching the surface, of course. What booze laws have you scratching your head?

About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He lives with wife, son, and cats in Brooklyn. You can reach him on twitter at @dietsch.

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