Here’s what the Utah Legislature may change in the state’s liquor laws

Omnibus bill also changes rules regarding carrying one’s drink from bar to dining area.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rows of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey at the state liquor store in West Valley City at 5432 W. High Market Drive, on Feb. 28, 2022.

The chronic shortage of bar licenses in Utah may be alleviated if a plan being pushed through the Utah Legislature becomes law.

The proposal could free up “pretty close to 40″ bar licenses, said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who is the Legislature’s point person on alcohol policy. He unveiled the annual omnibus liquor bill Thursday.

Under Utah law, the number of bar licenses is tightly capped, based on Utah’s population. Except for a windfall of licenses last summer, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services commission has had only one of two licenses to dispense each month. At January’s meeting, commissioners had no bar licenses to give out. This month, the board expects to be able to assign one bar license, a result of population growth.

The current quota allows one bar license for every 10,200 Utah residents — meaning that there are 335 full bar licenses in use, a DABS spokesperson said.

Under the omnibus bill, SB173, bars operated by fraternal groups and equity organizations — such as country clubs — would be exempt from the population quota, so they wouldn’t count among the 335 licenses the DABS commission assigns. Right now, DABS has licenses issued to 24 fraternal groups and 16 equity groups, for a total of 40, the department’s spokesperson said.

Stevenson said Friday that “we’re not going to talk about quotas right now,” because the Legislature is looking at funding a study of other states with strict liquor laws. “We would look at the number of licenses, and we want to see how they’re doing this on a per capita basis,” Stevenson told The Salt Lake Tribune.

The bill still has a few glitches, Stevenson said — for example, it accidentally restricts the production of vinegar — so he and other lawmakers will hold it in the Senate Rules Committee for a few days “before it’s ready for primetime.”

Here are some other changes to Utah’s alcohol policy the bill does, and doesn’t, address:

Carrying your drink

Under the proposed new law, a restaurant patron who’s waiting at the bar for a table can carry their own drink from the bar to the dining area. For years, Utah law required the waitstaff to move the customer’s drink for them.

“It’s probably kind of redundant,” Stevenson said, “so we decided that was an easy change to make.”

There’s a safety issue at work as well. “If I were a young woman, I wouldn’t want my drink out of my control,” Stevenson said.

The old rule, he said, may contribute to overconsumption. “If you paid $15 for a drink, you’re probably going to have a pretty good reason to maybe slam that down, go directly to your table and order another one,” he said.

Airports and room service

More bar licenses will be allowed in the Salt Lake City International Airport, as its expansion is completed — though Stevenson stressed that they, too, would be exempt from the general population quota.

SB173 also would allow lounges in domestic airports, not just international ones. That would allow St. George Regional Airport to have a lounge serving alcohol, Stevenson said.

Another rule change that likely would benefit tourists more than locals: Resorts could start selling alcohol through room service.

License forfeitures

A rule change would give the DABS commission some leeway when deciding on the fate of a business that has closed for 10 days. Under current rules, a closure lasting that long, if not approved in advance by the commission, would cause the business to automatically forfeit its license.

The rule came under scrutiny when Woody’s Tavern, a historic bar in Moab, closed for 12 days last July when a planned cleanup went haywire and raw sewage backed up into the building. Because the owners of Woody’s didn’t notify DABS, they faced the possibility of forfeiting their license. In November, Tiffany Clason, DABS’ executive director, told commissioners she was dropping enforcement action against Woody’s, “after much deliberation, and in consultation with the governor.”

A similar closure did result in a forfeited license for the Sandtrap Cafe in Ogden, which closed after a fire hit the bar’s kitchen in July. Commissioners were sympathetic, but took away the Sandtrap’s license because the law required it.

“When people have investments in their business, we just need to be a little bit broader in the rules,” Stevenson said.

No change

Two issues Stevenson’s omnibus bill doesn’t cover:

  • Rules set last year forced the removal of several flavors and brands of hard seltzer from Utah’s grocery and convenience stores — based on the chemical composition of the flavorings — and those rules aren’t going anywhere for the moment. “That issue is up in the air right now,” Stevenson said.

  • The return of minibottles to Utah liquor stores remains on hold. DABS staff researched for months a plan to bring the 50-milliliter bottles of booze back to liquor stores. Then, in December, the DABS commission consulted with legislative leaders, who said minibottles were “a major alcohol policy issue,” and therefore something for the Legislature to decide. So far, though, no legislator has introduced a bill on the subject, Stevenson said.