Alcohol laws are strange.
It doesn’t matter what booze industry sector we’re talking about. Distilleries, bars, Sunday brunch spots that whip up Bloody Marys and Mimosas — they’re all linked to regulations that can raise questions or defy logic, possibly both. You’ll find most of these laws on the state level.
If you enjoy a tipple — and since you’re here, I’m going to assume you do — you may be familiar with your state’s alcohol-related legal oddities. You may not, however, know about the mandates that exist in other states. Some exist in the gap between good intentions and overreaching. Others demonstrate a lack of understanding of or preparedness for the craft distilling boom, and others are just plain weird. Many of these mandates rise from Prohibition’s ashes and come across as reactionary pieces of legislation attempting to maintain some semblance of government control over how people drink in a post-Prohibition landscape. How the powers that be execute this wrangled morality can be flexible in some cases.
What follows are state-by-state examples of alcohol laws ranging from restrictive to ridiculous. This is just a partial list of laws. In some cases, they’re also truncated descriptions of larger stories or issues. But whether they’re large or small, past or present, these accounts point to a larger story regarding the sensibility surrounding liquor laws: While we’ve come a long way, we still have a ways to go.
There are no dry counties in Alabama, but they only stake this claim on a technicality: 22 counties are barely “moist.” These counties are mostly dry, but they have a few wet cities within their borders. Any city with a population over 1,000 within these counties can vote to allow booze.
Alaskan legislation prohibits “entertainment” in brewery taprooms. This mandate goes beyond live acts: Televisions, games, or dancing are verboten. This will slightly change as of Jan. 1, 2024, when taprooms will be allowed to hold four live music concerts per year. TVs will still be considered bad, though.
Arizona used to prohibit Sunday liquor sales everywhere before 10 a.m. This included restaurants, which restricted Sunday brunch hours and limited their opportunity to earn money from the popular ritual. The state overturned the law in 2010, enabling people to buy booze as early as 6 a.m.
Each of Arkansas’ 29 dry counties can establish private clubs that are permitted to sell alcohol through the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Division. These clubs can sell alcohol if they can demonstrate they’re a nonprofit organization that doesn’t solely exist to let people knock down drinks.
Prior to 2015, California craft distilleries could not sell their products directly to consumers. The law changed for the better from 2015 and 2018, but not by much — guests could only buy a bottle if they went through a tasting in a tasting room first.
Convenience and chain grocery stores couldn’t sell “full-strength” beer until 2019. Previously, they could only offer beer with an alcohol by weight of no less than 3.2 percent (or 4 percent alcohol by volume).
“Bar” and “tavern” are not interchangeable terms in Connecticut. Bars are permitted to serve liquor. Taverns? Not so much. Both can serve beer and wine, though.
Washington, D.C., prohibits bars from using any imagery associated with a religious holiday for promotional purposes.
You can’t buy beer or wine in a grocery store in Delaware. You also can’t purchase booze before noon on Sundays, which represents relative progress; Sunday liquor sales were banned here until 2003. Similar scenarios play out in other states thanks to blue laws and post-Prohibition mandates establishing control states, where the state government runs all liquor stores and sales.
Florida’s craft distilleries used to be limited to selling six bottles of liquor per person per year, a law that kneecapped their ability to generate on-site revenue. The law wasn’t repealed until 2021.
Archaic blue laws prohibited Sunday sales of alcohol in Georgia until 2011. However, cities in the Peach State still reserve the right to enact their own Sunday booze bans.
In Hawaii, you’re not allowed to have more than one drink in front of you at any time. This also applies if you’re not sitting at the bar. If you approach the bartender and order two drinks, you must point out the person who’s going to be enjoying the second drink.
House-infused spirits, in-house barrel-aged cocktails, and housemade cordials are illegal in Idaho. The state takes the law seriously, as its Alcohol Beverage Control unit occasionally conducts raids on bars they suspect may be in violation.
The Chicagoland area’s connection with Prohibition and notorious figures like Al Capone left scars that took decades to heal. Larger Chicago suburbs like Evanston, Wheaton, and Oak Park remained dry well into the 1970s and 1980s, and some smaller surrounding towns stayed dry until the 21st century. The last ‘burb to go wet, South Holland, only did so in early August 2023.
You can’t buy cold beer in an Indiana grocery, convenience, or drug store. It’s also the only state in the union that regulates alcohol sales by temperature. The official rationale behind the law is a fear that people will pop open a brew as soon as they exit the store, although others claim it’s pushed by liquor store industry lobbyists afraid of losing beer sales.
It’s illegal for guests to establish their own barroom credit in Iowa. In other words, regulars can’t go into a bar, say “put it on my tab,” and pay it on a later date like they’re Norm from “Cheers.” It’s a minor quibble regarding a practice that’s not as prominent as it once was, but Iowa arguably deserves nothing more than a mild chiding since it was the first state to make cocktails-to-go permanent in 2020.
In most states, counties are “wet” unless they vote to make themselves “dry.” Not Kansas. The Sunflower State is one of two “dry by default” states, where each county starts out as dry and must vote to allow alcohol. This odd technicality tracks with the state’s history. Kansas carried statewide prohibition from 1881 to 1948, the longest stretch of any state in the union.
Kentucky, the beating heart of the American distilling scene, was still home to 10 dry counties as of 2022. This number represents progress: The dry county count was close to 40 a decade earlier.
Perhaps no state exemplifies the twisted pretzel that is state-level liquor laws more than Louisiana. 100-milliliter mini bottles of booze were banned in the state until 2014. However, drive-through Daiquiri stations have been part of the Louisiana landscape since 1981.
From 1937 until 2014, it was illegal for Maine bars to display the alcohol content of their beverages or use phrases like “high proof” on their menus or signage. While the law’s origins are a bit muddled, it’s speculated that it was written to crack down on post-Prohibition beer ads that overemphasized their strength.
In 1978, Maryland legislation prohibited chain grocery and convenience stores from selling beer and wine. It’s a more convoluted law than it initially appears. Due to grandfather clauses and other specialized provisions, a handful of stores that would otherwise be restricted from beer and wine sales can stock both items on their shelves.
In 1984, Massachusetts became the first state to ban happy hour. Seven other states — Alaska, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, and Vermont — have since enacted similar bans.
In 1945, Michigan passed a law prohibiting women from being bartenders at an establishment unless they were, as the law stated, “the wife or daughter of the male owner.” Several bars ignored the ban, and a subsequent lawsuit made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it lost 6–3. Michigan eventually lifted the ban in 1955. Sadly, this wasn’t an isolated case. California, for example, didn’t allow women to bartend until 1971.
Minnesota’s distilling laws allow state microdistilleries to produce 40,000 proof gallons per year. If they exceed this limit, they get hit with a hefty state excise tax on what they produce and their licensing fee quintuples. These sharp increases make it difficult for ambitious distilleries to grow, compelling some producers to move their facilities to neighboring, more distiller-friendly states.
Prohibition was still a thing in Mississippi until 1966. The repeal primarily occurred because several state legislators, including Governor Paul Johnson, Jr. got caught at a Mardi Gras ball in Jackson with alcohol present. The governor signed off on the repeal shortly thereafter, making it the last state to overturn Prohibition on the state level.
Kansas City, Mo., gave Prohibition the finger for its duration. Thanks to the greased palms of politicians and law enforcement officials, K.C. became a notorious hub for booze, not to mention nightlife and jazz. It was a different story once the 21st Amendment passed. Missouri, including Kansas City, banned Sunday sales of any beverage above 5 percent ABV from 1934 to 1975.
Montana distilleries can only serve customers 2 ounces of their spirits per day. This doesn’t mean 2 ounces of each spirit they produce — we’re talking 2 ounces of spirits combined. Montana breweries, on the other hand, can serve up to 48 ounces of beer per person on the daily.
A Nebraska distillery can serve cocktails in its tasting room, but it can only use the spirits it produces in the drinks it makes. This isn’t an uncommon practice. Several states have similar laws on the books.
You’d expect Nevada to completely subvert the buttoned-up liquor laws of other states, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. State law prohibits any city or county from making public intoxication a public offense. If you do something illegal while intoxicated, such as driving drunk, that’s a different story.
New Hampshire is one of two states that does not impose a tax on liquor; Wyoming is the other. This inadvertently turns its state-run liquor stores into popular destinations for thirsty residents of neighboring states seeking tax relief.
Since 1969, New Jersey has limited city liquor licenses to one for every 3,000 residents. Critics of the law say this creates artificial license scarcity and inflates its cost, making it significantly tougher to open a new bar or restaurant. Debates to reform this law via legislation are currently ongoing.
New Mexico put the kibosh on mini-bottles of booze for off-site imbibing in 2021. Minis are still allowed in locations where the consumer can’t take them off the premises, like a hotel or a golf course.
The legal drinking age in New York was 18 from 1971 to 1982. The state, along with several others, lowered the age from 21 to coincide with the passage of the 26th Amendment, which reduced the voting age from 21 to 18. The state bumped it up from 18 to 19 from 1982 to 1984, then increased it to 21 in 1984 to comply with the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act.
North Carolina banned liquor cocktail sales from 1908 until 1978. If a guest wanted a mixed drink before the moratorium’s repeal, they had to bring their own bottles, keep them hidden in brown bags (a practice known as “brown bagging”), and make the drinks themselves. The only thing staff could do was supply guests with ice and mixers.
North Dakota does and does not allow moonshiners. According to state law, residents can legally make their own alcohol for personal use. They just can’t exceed the federal allowance in their production. The federal allowance currently sits at zero gallons.
Under Ohio law, it is permissible for parents to order alcoholic beverages for their underage children at a bar or restaurant. The parent must stay with the child for the duration of the drink’s consumption. While this is a legal activity, most restaurants use their own discretion and prohibit the practice altogether.
Oklahoma didn’t repeal Prohibition on the state level until 1959, and the only way you could get liquor by the drink before 1985 was to buy into membership at a private club. The system was shoddy at best. Restaurants and bars could carry “private club” designation. Membership cards cost as little as $1 to join. While patrons were supposed to bring their own bottles, venues would stock their own liquor and claim it was out of the guest’s own bottle when it was poured — a practice that garnered the nickname “liquor by the wink.” When the law passed, it was the first time Oklahomans could have a legal cocktail since Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
Bars in Oregon must sell a minimum of five “substantial” food items. What counts as “substantial” is up to the discretion of the Oregon Liquor & Cannabis Commission.
Pennsylvania adds an 18 percent Johnstown Flood tax on every alcohol bought in the state, originally created to help the city of Johnstown recover from a devastating natural disaster. The Johnstown Flood happened in 1936.
Like its neighbor Massachusetts, Rhode Island does not allow happy hour specials. However, there is an ongoing push to repeal this law, which has been on the books since 1985.
South Carolina’s bars and restaurants were prohibited from selling their own liquor prior to 1973, forcing customers to bring in their own booze. Tired of “brown bagging,” the state came up with a solution: Bars could serve alcohol and make drinks, but only from liquor poured from a sealed, 1.7-ounce mini bottle. The minis also needed to be completely emptied into the drink, often resulting in strong, unbalanced cocktails. The law was overturned in 2006.
Donating alcohol is prohibited in South Dakota, even for charity events. If a charity plans on serving alcohol at a function, it must obtain a special license. According to state law, this license puts the charity under the state’s three-tier system, meaning it can only purchase alcohol from a wholesaler and not from a retail market.
Many people know that Tennessee’s most iconic liquor brand, Jack Daniel’s, is in a dry county. What they may not realize is that Tennessee is a dry-by-default state.
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) requires all on-premise venues to place ID stamps on their spirits bottles for inventory-tracking purposes. These stickers cannot be tucked away on the bottle’s backside. They must be prominently displayed on the front, partially attached to the bottle’s label. The result? A massive eyesore on each bottle.
Utah’s infamous Zion Curtain, the opaque partitions that prevented people (and protected children!) from seeing cocktails made, fell in 2017. The state still has plenty of other odd liquor laws still intact. To wit: It is illegal for bartenders to pre-batch cocktails. This is but one example of many.
While Vermont banned happy hour in 1986, this doesn’t mean you can’t get drink specials. The state allows restaurants to offer all-day price reductions for specific drinks or promotions like “Wine Wednesday.”
In 1968, Virginia established a food-liquor ratio for any establishment holding a mixed-beverage license. Under the ratio, food must account for at least 45 percent of a venue’s gross sales throughout the duration of the license’s year. This means liquor cannot exceed 55 percent of its gross sales. This also means the concept of a bar simply offering cocktails and a few bar snacks really doesn’t exist here.
In 2012, Washington allowed private retailers to sell alcohol. The decision ended 78 years of all Washington booze sales restricted to state-controlled liquor shops.
It used to be illegal to sell beer higher than 6 percent ABV in West Virginia. This changed in 2009, when the state doubled the ABV cap from 6 percent to 12 percent. In 2019, it raised it even further, capping it at 15 percent.
Thank Wisconsin for the 21st Amendment. In 1927, the state legislature approved a measure legalizing beer in the state, which was only vetoed by the governor because it was unconstitutional. Two years later, Wisconsin repealed its state-level Prohibition laws. Finally, in 1932, ex-Wisconsin Governor-turned-U.S. Senator John James Blaine brought the initial draft of the 21st Amendment before Congress. You’d expect nothing less from a state notorious for its drinking culture.
In 2021, Wyoming doubled the number of satellite tasting rooms a distillery could operate, raising the number from one to two. The new law passed only after a provision that would have also ensured in-state direct-to-consumer shipping from distilleries was removed.