Proposal to boost Utah bar licenses gets smaller with another round of cuts by lawmakers

The Utah Legislature’s annual omnibus liquor bill now includes a rule against so-called “hard soda pop.”

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Durango Bar, at 923 S. State St. in Salt Lake City, received its bar license from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services' commission on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022 — after trying for several months. Efforts to free up more bar licenses were trimmed back in the Utah Legislature, with amendments to the annual omnibus liquor bill that passed the Utah House on March 2, 2023.

Efforts to alleviate Utah’s shortage of bar licenses have taken another hit in the Utah Legislature.

A revision to the annual omnibus liquor bill passed the Utah House on Thursday — and one of the provisions set the number of bar licenses available at 15 above the population-driven quota.

A previous version of the bill had the added number of bar licenses at 20 above the quota — which itself was already cut from the 40 added licenses that had been made available in the bill’s first draft.

Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem, told lawmakers that the 15 added licenses would be enough to tide the state over until an 18-month study can be conducted comparing Utah’s licensing limits to those of other states.

According to current law, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services’ commission can issue one full bar license for every 10,200 residents of the state. As of last week’s DABS commission meeting, there are 336 bar licenses in Utah — and there are no more to hand out, probably, until May.

At a Utah Senate committee meeting on Feb. 21, DABS Commissioner Tara Thue predicted that having 20 additional licenses — which the omnibus bill then promised — would get the board through the summer before running out again.

At last week’s DABS commission meeting, the board handed out its one available bar license to Bout Time Pub & Grub in Bluffdale — the Salt Lake County city’s first bar. The board had to deny licenses to three Salt Lake City businesses whose owners said they were already open under other licenses, and ready to implement the bar licenses immediately. The board declined to consider applications from another six bars that said they would be open between April and November.

The bill also provides an extra 30 licenses for restaurants, and allows multiple restaurants to be covered under a single master restaurant license — which could free up more licenses for other restaurants.

Another new provision in the liquor bill, Burton said, would outlaw what he called “hard soda pop.”

“What’s frightening is when you look at some of the marketing, some of these sodas look identical to a brand-name soda, and the only difference is it has the word ‘hard’ above it,” Burton said. “What we say in this bill is that these are not welcome in our grocery stores or convenience stores.”

Such products — hard Mountain Dew is an example — are being marketed nationally, but none have arrived in Utah.

The bill also would clarify how flavorings for “flavored malt beverages,” such as hard seltzers, would be measured. Flavorings based on ethanol, ethyl alcohol and propylene glycol would be allowed, if they contributed no more than 0.5% alcohol by volume — or 10% of the 5% ABV allowed in beverages sold in grocery or convenience stores.

That provision fixes a rule set in last year’s omnibus bill, which banned flavorings with ethyl alcohol — an ingredient commonly found in extracts and nonalcoholic products. That rule resulted in some flavors of malt beverages being available only in state liquor stores, even as flavors of the same brand were sold in grocery and convenience stores, because of a quirk of chemistry.

The amended bill spells out rules that require the DABS to check the flavoring formula on every brand and flavor of flavored malt beverage before it can be sold in grocery or convenience stores.

The bill would also codify a restriction on state liquor stores selling bottles smaller than 200 milliliters, or 6.8 ounces. That’s seen as a blow to any suggestion that the state would bring back mini bottles any time soon.

Another new rule would ban advertising for any alcoholic products on a “public entity,” which would include public transit. During the NBA All-Star Weekend, ads for such products as Coors Light and Maker’s Mark bourbon could be seen on the sides of TRAX trains through Salt Lake City.

The amended bill, SB173, passed the Utah House on a 69-2 vote, and the Senate approved the House amendments Wednesday on a vote of 26-2. The bill next goes to Gov. Spencer Cox.