When Federal Prohibition was rolled back in 1933, the majority of decisions on how to regulate alcohol were left to the states — including minimum drinking ages. By the end of the decade, all of the states had their laws on the books. Most opted to go with 21 — the age of “majority” — when you become an adult, though a few were a bit more adventurous. Mississippi on the other hand was quite regressive, prohibiting the sale of all alcohol on the state level until 1966.
Underneath the map, we’ve included some additional info explaining the major shifts, as well as a handful of exceptions.
Notes, Exceptions, Etc.
- The two large shifts in age, down and then up, have to do with legal changes on the national level. When the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971 with the passing of the 26th amendment, many states brought their minimum drinking ages down as well. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was the catalyst that brought drinking ages back up. The law reduced highway funding by 10% to any state that did not adopt a 21-year minimum. The law was upheld as constitutional in 1987, and by the end of the following year, every state’s minimum drinking age was 21 for the first time in American history.
- A number of states with 21-year minimums carved out exceptions for 3.2% “near beer.” We haven’t included these among the states that set different minimum ages for beer and wine vs. liquor.
- When Colorado, Idaho, Kansas (effectively), Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin split their age minimums based on category, they lumped wine in with hard liquor.
- Oklahoma only permitted the sale of beer until 1959. The state’s laws since then continue to be among the nation’s most restrictive. Oddly enough, from 1959 until 1976, only women 18 to 21 were allowed to purchase 3.2% “near beer.”
- Louisiana — obviously — has a particularly colorful history when it comes to its minimum drinking age. While the state did raise its minimum age to 21 in 1987, they left open a large sales loophole, protecting bar owners from prosecution for serving alcohol to those 18 to 20. That loophole, and the sales it allowed to slip through was finally closed in 1995. That law was challenged in state court. In 1996, the Louisiana Supreme Court briefly overturned the ban on sales to those between 18 and 20 as unconstitutional age discrimination. After an uproar — including fear of losing $17 million in Federal highway funds — they reversed their own decision a mere three months later.
- A handful of states, during some periods, made further distinctions between on and off-premise consumption. In those cases we’ve gone with the higher age.