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Tippling Through Time

You kids got it easy. Back in the day, wetting your whistle took a little extra effort.

By Ted McDonough
Posted // July 1,2009 - Utah’s newest liquor “reform” still requires barkeeps to run patrons’ IDs through a barcode scanner (if patrons appear younger than 35). That might seem odd, but it’s par for the course in the Beehive State, where keeping tabs on drinkers is an old tradition. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that Utahns carried a “liquor license” next to a driver license in their wallets.

Over the years, Utah’s “private clubs” have became less private and less like clubs. But knowing the code words needed to order your favorite drink did make you feel like a member of a secret society with the password to the speakeasy.

The “Liquor License”—Following the repeal of Prohibition (courtesy of Utah’s Legislature, which officially ended Prohibition for the nation by becoming the 36th state to approve repeal in 1933), all tahe old bootleg joints put up a shingles as open bars. But the party was short-lived, as Beehive State lawmakers quickly took control of liquor sales in 1935. Buying a bottle meant handing a state-issued piece of paper with no photo—your own personal “liquor license”—over to the nice man behind the counter of the state liquor store. First, you ran your finger down a menu held beneath two panes of glass to find what you wanted—a bottle of Jack Daniels—then located the official state code number assigned to the brand and bottle size. You wrote both down on an index card and handed the card, your liquor license and money to the man behind the counter who fetched your bottle.

BrownBagLiquor.jpg“Brown-Bagging”— From the end of Prohibition until 1969—when Utah’s Legislature passed the first in a series of liquor “reform” laws—the Beehive State had among the most conservative liquor laws in the nation. But you’d never know that walking into a restaurant or beer hall. Brown bags containing scotch, gin and bourbon sat u n d e r tables within easy reach of many diners. “Brown bagging” was the only way to go—because the only place in Utah you could buy liquor was the state liquor store, not a restaurant.

Bringing your own booze to the restaurant or tavern wasn’t very suave, but it sure was a cheap way to drink, and many Utahns of a certain age fondly remember brown bagging. At the tavern—which only served beer—you could pour yourself shots as long as you also bought beer from the owner.

It was the era of “liquor by the drunk” in the eyes of would-be reformers. Utah law required you to bring a full bottle to the restaurant, but made it a crime to have an opened bottle in your car, theoretically encouraging people to drain the last drop. In reality, many Utahns carried with them some sort of satchel or violin case specially fitted out to carry liquor bottles.

The mini-bottle—In 1968, Utah voters followed the advice of LDS Church leaders and voted against a “liquor by the drink” initiative at the ballot box that would have allowed restaurants to pour a drink for customers. The following year, the Legislature passed a liquor “reform” law that gave Utahns the stiffest drink in the country—in the name of moderation.

According to the law that lasted until 1990, you still had to buy your liquor from the state liquor store—but restaurants could set up their own mini-state liquor stores onsite, in “an inconvenient place,” typically a closet. Lambs Grill on Main Street Salt Lake City had a unique take: a handsome cabinet placed in the center of the dining room. Diners would buy mini-bottles, then carry them to their tables where they would mix their own drinks in restaurant “set-ups.” Halfway into the night, piles of mini-bottles would litter the tables. And each drink packed a healthy 1.7 ounces.

Private Clubs—There was a time in Utah when a private club really was a private club. If you didn’t want to mix your own drink, you had to belong to a golf club or purchase a membership in the Alta Club, Ambassador Club or University Club.

Such clubs kept lockers where members would keep their personal bottles of scotch, bourbon or gin, each with its owner’s name marked on it. When a club member wanted a drink, staff would go to that member’s locker in the back room and pour from the member’s personal bottle. At least that’s how it worked in theory. In reality, the lockers were magic. If a member or a guest wanted an exotic liquor, it just always happened to be in his or her locker.

The breakthrough for Utah liquor service came when the Utah Legislature, in its wisdom, passed a law allowing individuals to own private, “nonprofit” clubs, and the professional barkeep entered the stage. He owned the club. He served the booze. Legally, it was still a private club. Officially, it held annual meetings of members. But it worked like a bar. (The idea that the clubs were “nonprofit” quickly became a joke. The club never made a dime, but it paid hefty “management fees” to the guy who happened to own the bar.) During a brief respite from the liquor laws known as the 2002 Winter Games, membership fees and lists were dropped. But the Legislature slammed the door when the tourists left town. However, the days of private clubs were numbered. Struggles to maintain the legal fiction lasted until the Legislature abolished membership fees this year. 
 
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