Booze may get more expensive in Utah, but more bars could get licenses

Raising the state’s markup on alcohol, adding compliance officers and changing how many licenses the state issues are part of a new liquor bill.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bartender prepares cocktails at Lake Effect cocktail bar and restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City in 2022. The Utah Legislature's annual omnibus liquor bill was released on Feb. 14, 2024 — and includes an increase in the state's markup of alcoholic beverages, meaning Utahns could soon be paying more for booze. The bill also would change the population quota that determines how many bar and restaurant licenses the state issues.

The price of liquor, wine and beer could go up in Utah, if a proposal to raise the state’s markup of alcoholic beverages passes the Utah Legislature.

That’s one of many proposed amendments to Utah’s liquor code included in a sweeping bill introduced late Wednesday afternoon.

The annual omnibus liquor bill, HB548, also includes proposals to replenish the state’s supply of liquor licenses over the next seven years, alleviating a yearslong scarcity that has left bar and restaurant owners waiting for months to get their licenses.

The bill also offers proposals that would:

• Ban the sale of frozen alcoholic products, vaporized alcohol and any beverage that is more than 80% alcohol (such as certain 160-proof rums).

• Raise the tax on beer kegs by a dollar over four years, from $13.10 for a 31-gallon barrel to $14.10.

• Appoint three more alcohol-related law enforcement officers.

• Implement a “place of last drink” program, to monitor businesses that may be overserving their customers.

• Allow mobile beer dispensing on golf courses.

• Make it legal for hotel guests to carry their drink from the hotel bar to their rooms and other designated areas.

• Shift power within the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services away from the liquor commission and toward its director, who is appointed by the governor.

Under the bill, the state’s markup — the amount DABS charges consumers for alcoholic beverages above what it pays wholesalers — would rise from 88% to 88.5% for liquor, wine and flavored malt beverages, and from 66.5% to 67% for heavy beer.

It is unclear how much that increase would add to the cost of a bottle of booze, or how much more revenue the state government would receive from the rise. The Legislature’s analysts are in the process of creating a fiscal note to accompany the bill.

The population quota, which the Legislature set to determine how many liquor licenses DABS can issue, would be lowered over the next seven years under the bill.

Currently, DABS can issue one bar license for every 10,200 Utah residents, and one restaurant license for every 4,467 residents. The bill would taper down those quotas, starting in July, to eventually get to one bar for every 7,246 residents and one restaurant for every 3,167 residents by July 2031.

The bill would also create three more full-time compliance positions in the State Bureau of Investigation. They would join a team whose job is to go through grocery and convenience stores where alcohol is sold, and make sure the alcohol is displayed properly. The team also would check that there are not any products such as alcoholic versions of soda brands, like Hard Mountain Dew (on sale in 19 states), that were made illegal in Utah in last year’s omnibus bill.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem, recently told The Salt Lake Tribune that adding the compliance officers would help offset the “social impact” of adding more liquor licenses.

The bill would also give more power to the DABS director, a position appointed by the governor. Under current law, the director must propose policies, rules and procedures to the liquor commission; if the bill passes, the director would just implement those changes.

Another provision of the bill would require the director to form a workgroup to improve the efficacy of alcohol training and education.

The bill also would implement a “place of last drink” program, designed to discourage bars from overserving. Under this proposal, when a person is arrested for a violation such as a DUI, or has been in a crash and hurt someone, the place where they were drinking that night would be entered into a database.

“Over time, if one outlet shows many of these hits, that they were the last place somebody was served, then those folks will get more scrutiny,” Burton said