13 liquor facts every Utahn should know — whether you drink or not

From taxes and bar signs to “brown bagging” and wine clubs, here are the answers to your most pressing Utah alcohol questions.

Whether you are a lifelong resident or recent transplant, an alcohol consumer or religious abstainer, or simply an interested observer of Utah culture — you’re going to have a question about liquor laws in the Beehive State at some point.

The government-controlled liquor system has always walked a fine line between providing alcohol for legal adults and being fully separate from the beliefs of the predominant religion: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members (including a majority Utah officials setting the state’s liquor laws) are taught to abstain from alcohol.

In recent years, liquor laws have become more “normal,” at least in certain areas.

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At one time, bars were called “private clubs” and anyone who wanted to go in had to buy a membership. That requirement was nixed before the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Utah restaurants that sold liquor were once required to have a 7-foot barrier around the bar to prevent children from seeing the mixing and pouring of drinks. Most of those so-called Zion Curtains were torn down in 2017.

And after 86 years, Utah’s 3.2 beer law finally met its demise in 2019. All beer up to 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) is now sold in grocery and convenience stores.

The needle moved in a more conservative direction in 2018, when the Utah Legislature lowered the state’s blood alcohol content (BAC) level to 0.05 — making it the lowest drunken driving limit in the nation.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Dave Palmer takes a sip of his drink at Kimi’s Chop and Oyster House in Sugar House on Friday, July 9, 2021.

The fact is, the Legislature regularly tweaks the alcohol section of the state code — known as 32B.

Because the rules are always evolving, it’s a good idea to regularly review what is allowed, what is forbidden, and what makes us stand out.

So here are 13 facts about liquor every Utahn — even those who don’t drink — should know.

The Utah liquor monopoly is legal

Utah is one of 17 U.S. states — and one county — that still have government-controlled liquor operations, according to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association. While all of these entities control sales of spirits, only six, including Utah, control wine.

Utah, however, is the only state that still maintains full retail control of beer higher than 5% ABV.

This government monopoly — while not always popular with consumers — is legal under the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended Prohibition and gave states control of alcohol sales and distribution.

And here’s a bit of trivia: In 1933, Utah was the 36th and deciding state to ratify the 21st Amendment, allowing liquor to flow legally across the country.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new DABC liquor store in Taylorsville opens, the first one in the state to offer refrigerated beer, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

Liquor stores sell all spirits and wine — but only higher alcohol beer

The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, or DABC, is the state agency that controls liquor sales and licensing. The agency operates 50-plus retail stores, mostly in larger urban areas. It also signs contracts with private individuals and companies to run smaller stores or “package agencies” in rural areas, ski resorts, hotels and sports arenas.

Liquor stores are the only places consumers can buy vodka, whiskey, rum and other distilled spirits. They also are the only places to buy wine or beer that is higher than 5% ABV. The one exception? Licensed distilleries in Utah are allowed to sell their products to consumers directly. (They can even do so on Sundays, when state-operated liquor stores are closed.)

Historically, state stores have not refrigerated the beer but that started to change earlier this year, when the state opened its first liquor store with cold beer.

Liquor stores are open Monday through Saturday, typically from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. — although there are a few that stay open until 10 p.m. Liquor stores are always closed on Sunday and all state and federal holidays, so plan accordingly, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the lines are often long.

Alcohol is taxed a lot but it helps pay the bills

Utahns pay a lot for the alcohol they buy in state-run stores. Spirits and wine are marked up 88% on the wholesale cost, while heavy beer is marked up 66.5%.

While the DABC stores generate millions, more than half a billion last year, the agency does not keep all of the profits. After covering expenses — and employee wages and benefits — all net proceeds go to the state.

Most of the money funnels into a general fund to be used however the Legislature sees fit. The rest is divided among other programs, including the school lunch, underage-drinking prevention and liquor law enforcement.

Always have your ID for alcohol purchases

State liquor stores require all customers — even those who obviously look old enough to buy alcohol — to show a driver license or other valid ID before they can make a purchase.

A valid ID will be electronically scanned before you can enter a bar. It also will be checked in a restaurant or grocery store if you are buying alcohol.

The reason, of course, is to ensure that no one under age 21 is getting access to liquor. And businesses that get caught serving or selling to minors can face hefty fines and risk losing their state liquor license.

You may have to order food with that drink

At a restaurant, guests are required to order food with their alcoholic beverages — even if they are sitting at the bar. There is no requirement on how much food a patron must order — so the chips and salsa appetizer is usually enough to satisfy the law.

Why there are signs that say ‘This is a bar’

How can you tell the difference between a restaurant and a bar in Utah?

Look for the quirky sign that says “This is a bar” and “No one under 21 is allowed.” These signs, under state law, must be at least 8.5 inches long and 11 inches wide and be posted in a conspicuous place at the entrance.

The signs became mandatory as part of a massive liquor-reform law passed in 2017 and have been an annoyance for owners, confusing to diners and the butt of jokes on social media.

But when you see one, you know that you can get a drink — without having to also order food like the restaurant requirement mentioned above.

Cocktails don’t have the same kick

In Utah, cocktails can contain no more than 1.5 ounces of primary liquor. However, bartenders can add secondary alcohols and flavored liqueurs to cocktails, as long as the beverage doesn’t exceed a total of 2.5 ounces of spirits.

A glass of wine in a restaurant or bar equals 5 ounces.

And if you want draft, it will be no more than 5% ABV (same as what’s in the grocery stores). You can get a beer that has a higher alcohol content, but it must be served in its original sealed container.

It’s nearly impossible to find mini liquor bottles

Bottles smaller than 200 milliliters are prohibited. However, there are two exceptions: Airlines can sell mini bottles on flights, and hotels can sell them through room service.

It’s OK to bootleg one case of liquor

Whether it’s by car, airplane or another mode of transportation, residents can legally bring up to nine liters — or about a case — of alcohol into the state without penalty. However, it must be for personal consumption. Businesses are not allowed to buy liquor out-of-state for resale.

Brown bagging is allowed, with some restrictions

“Brown bagging,” or bringing alcoholic beverages into an establishment, is generally prohibited, according to the DABC. However, there are some exceptions.

A person may bring a bottle of wine into a restaurant or a bar licensed by the DABC — with approval from the business. The restaurant or bar can also charge a corkage fee for this service but is not required to do so.

Alcoholic beverages also can be taken and consumed in limousines and charter buses, with certain restrictions. And a person may brown-bag any type of alcohol to a private party.

Shipping wine to your home is a felony

Utah consumers have never been able to join those popular wine-of-the-month clubs because the state is one of the few that prohibits direct-to-consumer alcohol sale to homes or offices, according to Free the Grapes, a national grassroots organization that works to improve consumer choice in wine.

Utah also is the only state in which an adult can be charged with a felony for shipping alcohol.

Consumers aren’t completely out of luck. The DABC does have a system to special-order products by the case. Consumers still pay the state markup, and their products are delivered to a liquor store of their choice for pickup.

Homebrewing is a legal hobby

Utahns can produce up to 100 gallons of beer, wine or hard cider annually, for every person who is 21 or older in a household.

With that much booze in the basement, you’re likely to get invited to a lot of parties. But homebrewers and producers can carry only 72 ounces of beer or one liter of wine or hard cider outside their home at any one time.

But you’d better stick to beer. Distilling liquor in your home is forbidden under federal law.

There’s a drawing to buy ‘unicorn’ liquors

The DABC holds occasional drawings to distribute high-demand liquor products — such as Pappy Van Winkle and Old Forester bourbons.

These “unicorn” products often have huge price tags in other states. But with Utah’s mandated 88% markup, consumers here are able to nab bottles at bargain prices.

Customers can sign up for a chance to buy the products by setting up an account on the DABC website under the Rare High Demand Products tab.