This past week, New York joined the dozens of other states that have either made to-go drinks a permanent fixture or passed long-term legislation extensions allowing the provision.
Introduced in early March 2020, the sale of cocktails and other alcoholic beverages to go brought a much needed revenue stream for bars and restaurants navigating mandated closures. That influx of cash was unexpectedly cut off last June after the governor’s office announced the expiration of the executive order that allowed the policy’s quick introduction.
This week’s news therefore marks a triumphant, long-awaited return, celebrated by drinkers and hospitality business owners alike. It also follows months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, culminating in notable concessions that mean the new legislation looks slightly different from before.
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Here’s everything you need to know about the return of cocktails to-go in New York.
Are to-go cocktails legal in New York?
Yes. News broke last Thursday that the New York State Senate and Assembly had agreed to a 2022-2023 state fiscal year budget. Among other measures, the budget allows bars and restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages “to-go” for off-premise consumption. Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the legislation on Saturday, at which point to-go drinks became legal throughout the state.
We’re legalizing to-go drinks — to support small businesses and because I know we could all use a drink! pic.twitter.com/tLLMgzb512
— Gov. Kathy Hochul (@GovKathyHochul) April 7, 2022
Why are to-go drinks returning now?
The short answer to this question is that it’s happening now because the measure was included in the budget, which only just passed. But to fully understand the complicated journey to this point, the question should instead be split into two parts: Why haven’t to-go drinks returned before this point? And why did they need to return in the first place, after having been introduced in March 2020?
Tackling those in chronological order, the road begins in June 2021, when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted the state of emergency declaration that had been in place since the beginning of the pandemic. This canceled an executive order that allowed the sale of cocktails and other beverages to-go, and upon its expiration, doing so would become illegal unless a bill to make the policy permanent could be sponsored and passed in the Assembly and Senate.
Despite the popularity of to-go cocktails among consumers and trade members, efforts to permanently legalize them fell flat, in large part because of strong opposition from liquor store lobbying associations.
Hope resurfaced in January when Gov. Hochul announced her intention to reinstate cocktails to-go during the 2022 State of the State address. Though opposition remained among some members of the Assembly and Senate, the moment marked a turning point for to-go drinks.
“I’d go so far as to say that if the governor hadn’t been an advocate for this and hadn’t made it a priority, then it wouldn’t have happened,” says Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association, a restaurant lobbying group.
It’s a lot easier to stop a bill from passing than it is to pass a bill, Wexler explains. And at the time of Hochul’s address, there remained a small but energized group of Assembly members and senators who opposed the return of to-go drinks — motivated by the concerns of liquor store owners.
But the governor’s public advocacy of the provision challenged the Legislature, forcing it to choose whether it would be willing to compromise or if this was a line it would continue to hold. “I think [last week’s] outcome demonstrates that the limited opposition was overcome by the desire for compromise,” Wexler says.
Other factors likely also weakened the resistance and prompted the shift in stance. The hospitality industry’s recovery has stalled since last June, following multiple waves of new coronavirus variants. Publicly opposing a proven lifeline for on-premise operators became a tougher sell for legislators. Additionally, the topic of to-go drinks was just one of many contested issues in the proposed budget, and ultimately became a bargaining chip. “Politics really is the art of compromise,” Wexler says.
What does the law allow in terms of to-go drinks?
On the topic of compromise, it should be noted that the new legislation contains some differences compared to the executive order that allowed the sale of to-go drinks through June 2021.
Whether a serving of wine or a proprietary cocktail, all drinks must now be packaged in a container with a sealed, secure lid or cap — so no more open coffee cup Margaritas. Bars and restaurants are also no longer allowed to sell full bottles of liquor or wine, nor are they permitted to decant an equivalent quantity into a different container and sell that as one menu item.
This appears to be a concession to appease liquor store owners as it stops on-premise businesses from operating as de facto bottle shops. Yet with no limits on the number of drinks menu items customers can buy, bars and restaurants can sell a full bottle in the form of three individual 250-milliliter pours to one guest. (The official guidance doesn’t explicitly state this, but neither does it warn against it.)
If breaking one bottle down in this way seems unsustainable from an environmental standpoint, consider that bars and restaurants are also allowed to sell single-serve wines and cocktails that they’ve purchased from distributors but not in their original packaging. If a bar offers a canned wine on its menu, therefore, it can sell that same product to-go, but only after decanting into an appropriate container.
Finally, all to-go drink orders must now also be accompanied by the purchase of a “substantial” food item.
What counts as a “substantial” food item?
Since the Saturday signing of the legislation, this wording has come under substantial scrutiny. It appears that the State Liquor Authority (SLA) was itself unclear on what constitutes “substantial,” and even took to Twitter crowdsource ideas on Sunday.
New Yorker’s, approval of the ’23 Budget brings back drinks-to-go. What do you consider “substantial food.” Should peanuts/pretzels count? Is a slice of pizza “substantial?” Maybe hummus on pita for our vegan friends? Should chips w/fancy dip qualify? We want to hear from you!
— NYS Liquor Authority (@NY_SLA) April 10, 2022
“A substantial food item is defined as sandwiches, soups or other foods, whether fresh, processed, precooked or frozen. Other foods are foods which are similar in quality and substance to sandwiches and soups; for example, salads, wings, or hotdogs would be of that quality and substance; however, a bag of chips, bowl of nuts, or candy alone are not. Obvious efforts to circumvent the law, for example an unreasonably small portion of soup, a serving of canned beans, a handful of lettuce, or charging a small extra fee for an alcoholic beverage in lieu of a food item not actually ordered or delivered will be treated as a violation of the law.”
Are bars and restaurants already offering cocktails to-go?
While to-go drinks are now legal, it may take some time before large numbers of bars and restaurants reintroduce them. Beyond operational and supply considerations, there isn’t the same urgency as in March 2020, when dozens of bars introduced to-go menus overnight.
Kenta Goto, the owner of New York’s Bar Goto and Bar Goto Niban, says he will need to order packaging and update his bar’s website, though both can be done relatively quickly thanks to having already run to-go programs and therefore already having systems in place.
“We are excited about the opportunity to offer to-go cocktails, but we are not in a rush,” he writes via email. “The first time we did this we were not able to open for in-person business, and at that time to-go was the only way we could operate. We were forced to rush. Now we are in a position that allows us to take a little more time to do everything right.”
Linden Pride, the owner of Dante and Dante West Village, shares a similar sentiment. He’s keen to get his bars’ to-go programs up and running again, but he wants to offer an experience that goes beyond drinks. Added value items like coasters and Spotify playlists can help extend the nature of hospitality beyond his businesses’ four walls, he says. As for packaging, that won’t be an issue.
“I’ve got a cellar full of to-go vessels, which my landlord will be very pleased for me to clear out,” he says. “They’ve been sitting there since they took the law away from us last year out of nowhere.”
What does this mean for the future of to-go drinks in New York?
Though now signed into law and not dependent on a state of emergency, the 2023 budget deal legalizes to-go drinks until 2025. If the policy doesn’t get renewed or isn’t made permanent by then, selling drinks to-go will again be prohibited.
In the meantime, with operators such as Pride and Goto looking to fine tune and evolve their offerings, all signs point to an exciting new era for to-go drinks in New York.