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Rolly: A toast to Utah liquor reforms — one step forward, two steps back

Published March 2, 2017 11:07 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Legislature's tinkering with Utah liquor laws this year in an effort to make them better could make them worse, continuing an 82-year tradition of screwing things up — all in the name of reform.

The attempt to do away with the controversial "Zion Curtain," which has made Utah a laughingstock, could backfire.

The whole idea of a 7-foot barrier to hide the mixing of drinks from restaurant patrons was wrongheaded from the start. It grandfathered in existing eateries, which created an uneven playing field in a highly competitive industry, because only new restaurants had to erect such a wall.

So after years of complaints and ridicule, lawmakers are seeking to remove that requirement if restaurants agree to a buffer zone — dubbed a "Zion Moat" — from bar areas where patrons under 21 years could not sit. That would prevent some smaller, often historic, eateries from seating enough patrons to stay in business.

After that bit of lunacy was pointed out, lawmakers tweaked the legislation to come up with a third alternative: Erect smaller barriers around bars.

With all the erasing, rewriting and hand-wringing, it's likely the Legislature will end up with nothing and recite the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs' cry: "Wait until next year."

We've seen this game before.

On one hand, Utah wants to be a haven for tourists and a depository for their money. On the other, the state's predominant religion and its lawmaking adherents have a skittish attitude about alcohol.

Those two agendas don't mix well.

In 1933, Utah became the 36th and deciding state to ratify the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition and resumed the legal sale of alcohol in the United States.

By 1935, the Beehive State had put in place rules for how alcohol would be sold and consumed.

That's when the silliness began.

The law required that hard alcohol be sold only at state-owned liquor stores, which would be closed on Sundays and holidays.

For decades, restaurant patrons had to buy their booze at a liquor store or state-controlled package agency, then bring it to the restaurant in a brown bag. The eatery could not have its own supply of liquor, and servers could not touch the bottle brought in by the customer.

The restaurant would sell the mixer, which would be brought to the table and mixed with the alcohol by the customer.

That encouraged diners to drink more because many killed the whole bottle at the restaurant so they wouldn't break the law by having an open container in their cars.

The minibottle replaced that maxi-problem, but introduced new issues.

Restaurants could have minibottles, which servers would bring to the table so diners could mix a drink. While mixed drinks contained an ounce of alcohol, the minibottles boasted 1.7 ounces. Patrons would pour the whole minibottle in a drink and end up consuming almost double the normal amount of alcohol.

If diners wanted an alcoholic beverage without having to buy food, they had to pay a cover charge to enter a licensed private club, which also mixed its drinks with 1.7-ounce minibottles.

So with both systems — the brown bag and the minibottle — imbibers were getting drunk faster, all under the guise of promoting responsible consumption.

In the late 1980s, comprehensive reforms allowed restaurants to serve mixed drinks as long as food was served.

By 2009, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman finally got real liquor-by-the-drink passed, and the requirement of having to pay a cover charge to drink in clubs evaporated.

The next year, however, to appease the teetotalers in the Legislature, the Zion Curtain went up — and yet another shot at sane liquor laws went down.







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