Raise the Bar: An Effort To Change Some Arcane Liquor Laws

In the United States, each state has its own set of laws regulating the production, sale and consumption of alcohol. Naturally, this results in a variety of goofy, arcane or sometimes just plain stupid liquor laws. Some are enforced, others are not, and still others see that very enforcement lead to a reversal of the law, something I'd like to see here in Iowa. I'll get to my problems with Iowa's laws in a minute, but first, a little sampler from a few of the other states around the union.

Texas is one of the national leaders in this regard. It is illegal in Texas to consume more than three sips of beer while standing. But even if you sit down, you can be arrested for public intoxication while still in the bar. And if you're under 21? Not a problem as long as you are with your parents or spouse. The age of consent in Texas is 17.

Pennsylvania has a whole slew of arcane laws (they still have the state stores that Iowa got away from during the first Branstad administration), but my favorite is that they apportion liquor licenses based on population. Philadelphia has more restaurants than their allotment permits, so restaurants are forced to go "BYOB," or to buy licenses from closing restaurants on the open market, often for as much as $250,000. It cushions the blow of losing your restaurant, I suppose, if you can get a quarter of a million dollars for a piece of paper.

In Connecticut, pharmacists must have a $400 liquor license to use alcohol in compounding prescriptions. Indiana liquor stores can't sell cold soft drinks, though unrefrigerated is OK. Kansas liquor stores can't sell anything else at all. I went into one once to buy a bottle of wine, only to find that they couldn't sell me a corkscrew.

Alabama bans any beer bottle over 16 ounces, so yes, growlers are illegal. Alaska bans liquor sales from 5 to 8 a.m. (still gives you an hour before you get to work, though). Arizona, New Mexico and Rhode Island have drive-through liquor stores, and New Hampshire goes one better, putting their state-run liquor stores in interstate rest areas (in part to take advantage of Massachusetts' own crazy laws that make people drive to New Hampshire to buy).

Colorado has RWI -- riding while intoxicated -- not as a passenger in a car, but on a horse. Understandable there in cowboy country, I suppose. In neighboring Oklahoma, packaged alcohol must be sold at room temperature (sorry, purists). In South Carolina, you can't buy a drink on Election Day, but with a little planning you still can be drunk when you vote.

Iowa has a few crazy laws of its own, and some are not very strictly enforced. For example, it is technically illegal to run a tab in a bar, though I've never seen a bar (or a police officer) here try to enforce that rule. And we used to have even stricter rules. As late as the 1970s, not only did Iowa still have state-run stores, but each store also kept a book on each customer detailing their purchases, and it was not uncommon for fathers to request to see the books of their daughters' suitors to ascertain their sobriety.

Today in Iowa, if you own a bar, restaurant or retail store and want to sell beer, wine, and liquor, you must pay cash on delivery for beer and liquor, but wine you can buy on credit. And the beer and wine can come from one or many wholesalers, but restaurants and bars must buy liquor from the retail stores, who must in turn by it directly from the state. If the state does not see fit to carry a certain liquor, or allocates it to Des Moines and you're in Iowa City, then, well, tough.

The craziest law of them all, though, is that bars and restaurants are barred from infusing their own alcohol (so we can't make, for example, our own flavored vodkas -- we have to buy them from the state). We can't make our own bitters, despite them being classified as "non-potable liquor" because they are undrinkable on their own and are only ever used a couple of drops at a time. We also can't barrel-age cocktails, which can lead to some truly amazing libations, nor can we pour alcohol from anything but its original container. This presumably goes back to a day when unscrupulous mixologists would substitute rotgut for the good stuff to turn a quick buck.

I have begun an effort to change the law (please sign the petition here), to make it legal for bars and restaurants to employ their skills to make cocktails better and more enjoyable, and return to a time when the cocktail was considered a high art, not a bunch of "shooters" in plastic cups in a crowded sports bar. I'd like bars to be able to create libations of true character, unencumbered by arcane laws from a bygone era, to make flavors to savor. HD Thoreau said, "He who distinguishes the true savor of his food cannot be a glutton. He who does not, cannot be otherwise."