Utah loosens up on liquor regs | AspenTimes.com
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Utah loosens up on liquor regs

Brock Vergakis
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

SALT LAKE CITY ” Getting a drink in Utah will no longer require the equivalent of a permission slip.

Gov. Jon Huntsman signed the most sweeping changes to the state’s liquor laws in 40 years into law on Monday, eliminating a much criticized system where customers must fill out an application and pay a fee before being allowed to enter a bar.

“In the name of economic development and the name of travel and tourism, and so that we don’t have to explain whenever a company comes into town for the first 30 minutes of our discussion why we have some of these onerous rules on the book, we’re going to sign,” Huntsman said at The New Yorker, an upscale bar and restaurant downtown that is a private club.

Utah is the only state in the country with such a maze of liquor laws ” and Huntsman appeared to have inadvertently broken them Monday. Huntsman, who doesn’t drink and isn’t a member of The New Yorker, didn’t have a member at the door waiting to sponsor him in and didn’t fill out a temporary membership form or pay a fee on his way to signing the bill.

Scores of bars have been punished with hefty fines and closures for allowing the very same thing to happen.

“In a case like today, I think everyone was sponsored by the owner,” said Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley. “But that’s the kind of situation we will eliminate with the bill today.”

Bars will no longer have to worry be private clubs beginning July 1, eliminating a decades-old headache for anyone who has ever sought a cocktail here.

The move is being made in an effort to make the state seem a little less odd to outsiders and boost the state’s $6 billion a year tourism industry. Tourism officials have long complained that Utah’s notoriously quirky liquor laws have given Colorado a competitive advantage in luring the lucrative ski and convention market.

Tourists in search of a beer and a bite to eat after hitting the ski slopes frequently walk out of bars once told they’re for members only. A separate membership, costing at least $4, is required at every bar.

“It’s always been the knock on Utah. We’ve got the best snow, we’ve got the best access, we have the nicest people. There’s nothing that compares to our product. The only knock that anybody could ever come up with is that ‘Your liquor laws are strange, quirky, weird,’ ” said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, the ski industry’s marketing arm. “Instead of putting us at a disadvantage, this levels the playing field.”

The new law will also allow restaurants to take down partitions known as “Zion Curtains” that separate bartenders from customers in restaurants. Currently, bartenders or servers must walk drinks around the bar before they’re allowed to serve them.

The name “Zion Curtain” is a reference to the state’s religious heritage as the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which tells its members to abstain from alcohol. The Mormon church counts about 60 percent of the state’s population among its members

The private club system and the Zion Curtain as they’re known today got their start in 1969 after the Mormon church told its members to vote down a proposal that would have allowed the sale of liquor by the drinks in restaurants.

The church is still highly influential here and the changes to the state’s liquor laws would not have happened if the church had opposed them.

As part of a compromise, the state will impose tougher DUI and underage drinking penalties. Utah will also become the first state in the country to require bars to scan the ID of anyone who appears younger than 35 before being allowed to enter.

Information obtained through the ID scan, including name, age and address, will be kept on site for seven days so it can be accessed by law enforcement, despite concerns that keeping the information is a violation of privacy.

The compromise Huntsman signed into law will also prohibit new restaurants from mixing cocktails in public view because some lawmakers are worried that children will be enticed to drink alcohol if they see it poured from bottles. The display of bottles, the serving of cocktails and their consumption will still be allowed in public view.

The Utah Restaurant Association has said the new requirement will keep many chain restaurants from opening in Utah and wants to remove it in future legislative sessions.

“We don’t add to underage consumption and we’re not part of the problem of overconsumption,” said association president Melva Sine. “So in terms of those two problems they’re trying to solve, there’s no purpose to that portion of the bill that says we need to hide that. There’s no problem. It doesn’t exist.”

Huntsman has also called the requirement a step backward for the state, but agreed to it in order to make the other changes.

It’s a tactic he’s used on liquor laws before.

Huntsman was able to increase the maximum amount of liquor allowed in the standard cocktail from one ounce to 1.5 ounces last year by agreeing to other changes that are unique to Utah. Among them, customers can’t have more than 2.5 ounces of liquor before them at any time, down from the 2.75 ounces the law previously allowed. Customers in Utah also can’t order a margarita and a shot of tequila at the same time because it contains the same primary liquor, but they could order a margarita and a shot of bourbon, for instance.

In exchange for getting the larger standard pour in a cocktail, Huntsman agreed to ban the sale of flavored malt beverages in grocery and convenience stores. The beverages are now only sold in state liquor stores at an 86 percent markup and at room temperature.


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