Utah liquor laws remain confusing as effort to lift Zion curtain fails
Moab • Bisecting the border of Colorado and Utah between Grand Junction and Moab, there is a mountain-bike trail called the Zion Curtain. It cheekily refers to the difference in the two states most specifically to liquor laws.
A recent attempt to change one of those laws mandating a "Zion curtain" divider between restaurant patrons and bartenders failed. But liquor-law reformers aren't giving up. They say they will be back with another attempt to tear down the curtain and to eliminate some other liquor quirks that get less attention than the curtain but draw more complaints.
In Colorado, it's possible to have a mimosa for brunch or an after-work martini without food. Not so in Utah. In the Centennial State, you can order a double shot or take advantage of happy-hour discounts. Forget it in the Beehive State. There is no such thing as "heavy beer" in Colorado. In Utah, that refers to beer with more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.
Utah's byzantine liquor laws have been normalized in many ways in the past dozen years in ways that visitors might take for granted.
"Now, we can walk right up and say, 'Hey, do you want a shot of tequila?' " said Moab Brewery manager Gary Ranch about the changes.
But there are still plenty of wrinkles to deal with in a state with 1,775 liquor licenses held by eating and drinking establishments a state where about 70 percent of residents are members of the sobriety-promoting Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The entrenched Zion curtain coined from a biblical term for a mountain near Jerusalem, a fortress or an association of the pure at heart requires that liquor-servin restaurants opened since 2009 erect a translucent barrier between customers and the bartenders and liquor bottles behind the bar or keep any drink-making hidden in a space like the kitchen.
The Zion curtain law had actually been around long before that as a concept rather than a physical barrier. It used to mean that bartenders couldn't hand drinks to patrons sitting at a bar. A server had to walk around the bar to deliver libations. Some establishments decided a physical divider made that less awkward.
Actual Zion curtains on bars are hard to find nowadays, particularly in outposts like Moab, because there are so many permutations of liquor licenses in Utah.
Taverns and restaurants that serve only 3.2 beer don't need the barrier. Older restaurants don't need the curtain because they are grandfathered.
Establishments with "club" licenses country clubs, Elks halls and dining clubs that don't allow minors without an adult can also nix the curtain.
It is also possible to mix and match the eight types of liquor licenses available for Utah's bars and restaurants to make the laws more workable and avoid the curtain. The Moab Brewery has three. It's a tavern, a liquor-serving restaurant and a beer-packaging establishment.
Scott Beck, CEO and president of Visit Salt Lake City and a veteran of more than 15 years in the hospitality industry, said the Zion curtain is a sexy-sounding, lingering anomaly in Utah liquor laws. It gets all the attention. But Beck said other provisions in the liquor laws create more confusion, generate more complaints from visitors and even keep out some businesses.
The upscale Capital Grille won't open a restaurant in Utah, he said, because of the laws. Newer Chili's chain restaurants in Utah have had to reconfigure their standard layouts to eliminate the open bars. Ruth's Chris Steak House struggles to accommodate Utah drinkers used to downing Dirty C.E.O. martinis after work in other states without a mandated side of food. Brunch restaurants suffer because they can't serve mimosas or Bloody Marys before noon.
Nan Grove Anderson, director of the Utah Tourism Industry Coalition, calls these examples of "awkward moments for our customers."
Last week, conventioneers at a Salt Lake Hyatt Hotel complained after they tried to stop in the hotel bar for Coors Lights before heading out for dinner. They couldn't get a beer without also ordering the nachos or hot wings. Hotels have another quirk: It's not possible to order a drink and take it to a room.
It was worse until reforms of three years ago. Room service couldn't deliver a glass of wine to a guest. It had to be a split bottle. And talk about awkward: Ordering a room-service blended margarita used to mean a server had to bring a blender to the room and mix up the drink.
The changes since the liquor-law-changing 2002 Olympics, and since former Gov. Jon Huntsman reformed the laws further before he left office in 2009, have by and large made life easier for drinkers.
Advocates of more reform measures are confident they will happen. Kill-the-Zion-curtain measures failed for the last two years, but a proffered compromise brought the most recent effort a little more traction.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, was willing to give eating and drinking establishments the choice of putting up a "Zion warning" a sign outside that would advise that liquor would be visible inside in lieu of a "curtain" inside.
Until other parts of Utah's liquor laws are normalized, Beck said he would like visitors to remember one thing: "We are not the only state with peculiar liquor laws."
Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/nlofholm