The 50 States of Whiskey
As we come up on the 100th anniversary of Prohibition, it's time to look at some of the weird and diverse laws that govern spirits across the United States.
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Prohibition left some pretty wacky and diverse rules in these 50 states
As we come up on the 100th anniversary of the enforcement of the Volstead Act, it's time to look at some of the weird and diverse laws that govern spirits across the United States. With a 10th Amendment that allows each state to create its own laws, there is no wonder figuring out where to buy your bottle in each state can become quite the mystery.
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
Train Alcohol Confiscated
It was 1971 and America’s love affair with the automobile was as strong as ever. While the rest of the world was focusing on economy cars, mini’s and streamlined sports cars, American streets and highways were awash with boat sized bohemith’s like the Lincoln Continental or gas guzzling V8’s like the Oldsmobile Cutlass which consumed petrol at a thirsty 10-12 mpg or muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger, Chevy Camaro, Ford Mustang or Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.
Why not? Gasoline was a mere 36 cents a gallon, so for many there was no good reason to look toward economy cars. Add to that a country filled with wide open spaces and a plethora of roadside attractions, hotels, and fast food restaurants all tied together in a tapestry of traveling Americana.
So in this free wheeling America, what would be the fate of the old-fashioned passenger train?
Sure, in the big city people were still dependent on subways to get around town and intercity trains to venture between population centers like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. But outside of the Northeast it was a different story. In the rest of the country, boarding a train was a novelty. And with all of the railroads set up as privatized individual corporations, for them it was less about the importance of a transportation infrastructure and more about the financial viability of each of their individual routes. And the 1960s were not kind - by then most passenger train routes were bleeding in the red.
So as they tend to do, the U.S. Congress stepped in. Several proposals were put forward to save the ailing system, including subsidies, or consolidation, but nothing really stuck.
Then, in March of 1970 the largest trainline in the Northeast was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and to keep themselves viable, the Penn Central railway system decided to shut down 34 of their passenger trains, putting some travelers in a very tough spot.
Something had to be done - and now! Shelving their disagreements, the government came up with a solution they called the Rail Passenger Service Act. Signed into law in October of 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the act created the nation’s first government funded passenger railway system, originally called the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, but soon rebranded by the name we now know as Amtrak.
No one was sure if this grand experiment would really work. And while it solved the problem of survival for critical train routes, what they didn’t bargain on, were the growing pains involved in taking individual train lines and absorbing them into a national railroad system rolling through 50 states with 50 different sets of laws.
It was July 18th, 1972, the Rainbow Era for Amtrak, when the recent consolidation of several railway systems, would leave the fledgling trainline with a wide spectrum of clashing colors from car to car. On this particular day, the northbound Texas Chief was making its normal uneventful path up the track from Houston to Chicago. The journey was known as a particularly sleepy one, as the train spent most of its travels passing through mile after mile of prairies and plains. Only the granite rock of the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma would give passers by, any form of stimulating eye candy. This was a ride where you could normally depend on arriving on time.
But just outside of Oklahoma City, the rumble of locomotive steel gave way to the high pitched screeching of brakes as the Chief came to an unscheduled halt. Suddenly, a group of men were boarding the train. Their destination? The lounge car. No, they weren’t desperados looking to quench their thirst. Just the opposite, they were Oklahoma lawmen ready to make an arrest. WIthin minutes, they had the train’s lounge attendant in custody, shut down the bar, and confiscated all the alcohol. What was the charge? Operating an “open saloon” - in other words, selling liquor illegally, whether on the train tracks or not, in Oklahoma. Now right or wrong, Amtrak felt it was well within their rights to sell the same alcohol in Oklahoma they were selling in other states, but Oklahoma officials felt a little different - and they actually had a legitimate axe to grind.
Not long before, the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Control Board had received a tip from a spoil sport reporter (no doubt looking for a scoop) informing them that the rail line was selling alcohol on each of its scheduled trips across the state. And that prompted the board to send Amtrak a warning, which it appears they ignored.
But maybe they should have read their Oklahoma history, because then they’d know how serious these Sooner’s really were about their liquor laws.
From the day it gained statehood in 1907, Oklahoma had been a fierce teetotalling state. In 1917 they were one of the states that beat Prohibition to the punch by enacting some of the strictest alcohol laws in the country. Oklahoma wouldn’t be just a dry state, it would be a “bone-dry state.” Even the Roman Catholic Church found itself fighting Oklahoma all the way up to the state Supreme Court, just so they could bring in shipments of sacramental wine. And after Prohibition ended in the United States in 1933, it would take until 1959 before Oklahoma would finally do away with their Bone-Dry law.
So when it came to alcohol, Oklahoma meant business. And those arrests would be just the beginning of a very long day for Amtrak. Apparently Oklahoma officials, sympathizing with their Northern neighbor’s stringent liquor laws, reached out to Kansas Attorney General Vern Miller, letting him know in no uncertain terms that Amtrak trains were most likely chugging through his state serving alcohol in defiance of their law as well
So on that same evening in Kansas City, state lawmen were ready to set a trap. The sting operation began when several undercover agents boarded an evening Amtrak train bound for the East. They proceeded to the lounge, placed their drink orders and awaiting their service. When the train arrived in Newton, Kansas, the Attorney General himself boarded the train and proceeded to have the conductor, a waiter, and a bartender arrested and held on $500 bond. Imagine the scene as agents carried case after case of those 2 oz mini-bottles off the train.
Well Amtrak got the message and immediately suspended alcohol sales in both states, but they also upped the ante by suing them in federal court. After a spilt decision, the fight was pushed all the way up the chain to the United States Supreme Court, where teetotalers won the decision. So from that day forward, it was legal for Amtrak to transport liquor through those states, but it could not serve any while within their borders.
States 2 - Amtrak 0
What was the lesson for this new national rail system? Something we Americans call the 10th Amendment. In it, the states are given power to create specific state laws and regulations that fit the morals and convictions of their local citizenry - as long as those laws don’t infringe on something enumerated in the Federal Constitution. And while it does give citizens at the local level more of a say in how they are governed, it can also unintentionally create 50 states of controlled chaos.
And nowhere is that chaos more evident than when it came to the scattered remains of Prohibition and that demon fire water known as alcohol.
These odd effects of the 10th Amendment don’t just pertain to Kansas and Oklahoma. No, in all of these 50 unique and wonderfully diverse states, there resides a very awkward relationship with all types of alcohol.
Let me give you some examples:
As far back as the 19th Century, there were these things called “blue laws” Not every state had them, but the ones that did, restricted you from certain activities on Sundays, including the purchase of alcohol. Then there was the Temperance movement, that worked tirelessly to stop the widespread abuse of alcohol, Their efforts were rewarded as early as 1851 when Maine became the first state to ban alcohol. And then there was the Volstead Act, that created the noble experiment of Prohibition that attempted to rid an entire nation of alcohol. And when the 21st Amendment finally cancelled out the 18th Amendment that created Prohibition, we were left with the most unique and bizarre mix of laws and regulations this country has ever dealt with.
I’m not speaking about the universally responsible laws like being of age to have a drink or our very sensible drunk driving laws. I’m talking about how difficult it can be for someone who is sober and of legal drinking age to simply find their favorite spirits, beer, or wine in a store or a restaurant in a town or state they’ve never been to.
Sure, if you live in Arizona, California, or Massachusetts you have free reign to get your beer, wine, or spirits directly from the grocery store.
But head to the Carolina’s or Ohio and there won’t be a drop of hard liquor in a grocery store, you’ll have to go to what is called an ABC store.
Or pop over to New York state, and you can buy beer in a grocery store, but not wine, nor hard liquor.
And in Alaska, Rhode Island and North Dakota, you can forget about buying alcohol in a grocery store - it ain’t gonna happen.
It’s enough to make your head spin - even without a sip of Jack and Coke.
So to put it another way...
While you may think that “United” in “United States” means we’re all reading off the same page, we’re actually probably closer to the European Union, sans the major language barriers.
We are a collection of 50 individual governments that can do just about anything they please - to a certain extent - with how spirits are sold in their states.
To complicate it even more, many states have deferred to their local municipalities and have allowed them to control their own destiny when it comes to alcohol sales and consumption. Known officially as the “local option.” you’ll find very scattered rules around areas termed “wet counties, dry cities, and moist townships.” These are real terms with real meanings that govern what your local retailer, a bar owner, or even you can and cannot do when it comes to adult beverages.
So during my early adult years, when I found myself moving from state to state, this diversity of laws made itself apparent the first time I hit the state line. The challenge when I moved to a new state was figuring out just where, when, or how I could buy beer or wine, not to mention a bottle of whiskey.
Let me take you through some of the states I’ve lived in - and I’ll divulge some of the unique, and sometimes insane laws that I ran into.
Let’s start with an easy one. The state I grew up in, North Carolina.
While the Tarheel state does allow the sales of beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores, the government wants tight fisted control over liquor, so this means you’ll have to purchase your spirits at an Alcohol Beverage Control stores, as known as ABC stores. In the case of these liquor only stores, the government utilizes control over the price and the access to all types of spirits..
ABC Stores didn’t seem that strange to me, because even the states surrounding North Carolina seemed to have them. Although, if you head to Virginia, there is a caveat to the ABC laws. You see, in Virginia, they have what are called moist counties. And there are 10 of them, not quite completely wet - but not dry either. Since these counties have decided that beer and wine is okay, but liquor is not for them, the state has not opened any ABC stores in those areas.
In total, there are 17 states that use the ABC managed concept - thus controlling some level of sales or wholesaling of alcohol. And although the stores are an option, don’t expect the concept to be carried through everywhere in the state.
My next experience was with South Carolina. Having a day off on a Sunday, I wanted to head on down to a little German restaurant and shop that was located in the mall and buy a mini-Keg of Warstiener beer. But I so conveniently forgot, was that South Carolina had “Blue Laws” that prohibited alcohol sales on Sundays. In fact, in those days, those blue laws covered a wide range of businesses, not just the one’s selling alcohol.
South Carolina’s other bizarre law luckily died a long needed death a few years ago. It was called the mini-bottle law. This law prohibited the free-pouring of hard liquor, in bars or restaurants, for the creation of cocktails. Instead, cocktails were mixed with mini-bottles. And if a mini-bottle was opened, the full contents had to be used for that single customer alone. Now imagine, a mini-bottle held 1.7 oz of liquor and most cocktails require less liquor than that, so any drink with a single mini-bottle added was going to be quite stiff. Not to mention the lack of ability to control the flavor of the drink.
And what to do with a drink like a Mai Tai or Long Island Ice Tea that requires several types of alcohol? And it wasn’t just the drunks and dangerous driving situations it was creating, think of all of that plastic hitting the landfills. It made absolutely no sense.
So why would a state keep such a stupid law?
Well, we have to go all the way back to the 1970’s and governor John West who not only suggested the bill, he had it passed into the state’s constitution making it virtually impossible to get rid of.
So why was he so passionate about it? Well, previous to that law, South Carolina had a prohibition on the sale of liquor by the drink all together. That meant if you wanted a stiff drink, you had to bring the bottle yourself. Imagine walking into a bar where all the patrons had their own bottles of whiskey, rum and tequila sitting on their tables! Not to mention the opportunity for open containers that were being taken on the journey back home!
Thank the Lord for progress. The mini-bottle law was voted out in 2006.
Next, I moved to Pennsylvania, which had the most convoluted system for dispensing alcohol I’d ever seen. If I wanted beer, finding a six-pack in a store was a no-go. You had to buy a case of beer and do so at a distributor. And these distributors never seem to be convenient to anywhere you were.
Pennsylvania is one of the only states where it seems restaurants are the best place to go shopping for a six-pack of beer.
If you wanted to buy wine, then it was off to the government controlled Fine Wine and Good Spirits shop, although I think the laws have loosened a bit and wine is slightly more accessible.
Now you would think I was giving you good news when I tell you there are no dry counties in Pennsylvania. But get this, there are almost 700 partially dry municipalities to deal with.
Just ask somebody where you can go buy beer.
Well, it should get better when I moved to Dallas, Texas, right? Big city, famous cheerleaders, skyscrapers, neon, and cowboys. Nope. North Dallas and the suburb I lived in, known as Richardson was dry as a desert.
Seriously? How could this have happened? Well, apparently the blame is split between the teetotallers of the 19th Century and later politicians that messed with precinct lines in the county. Apparently the politicians didn’t keep good records, so when the North Dallas precinct wanted to have a vote on going wet, no one could figure out the old lines from the new. So North Dallas remained dry - sort of.
When I lived there, people started telling me about this little incorporated town in the middle of the Richardson suburb called Buckingham. Apparently, Buckingham, population of just over 100 people and covering just 159 acres had taken advantage of a loophole in Texas state law that gave cities legal preference over counties in any referendum, and the incorporated and voted itself “wet.” It was a curious little town, featuring a series of apartments - and an adult beverage store. A very popular adult beverage store I might add.
But the founders of Buckingham weren’t the one’s who figured this whole scheme out. Unbenounced to me, apparently the suburb of Addison, just north of Richardson was the pioneer in solving this whole alcohol debacle way back in 1976. So I could have been heading a few miles north for my bottle, but somehow I was comforted that I had been stimulating the economy in this little renegade town of Buckingham.
Of course, times change, and Dallas County and the City of Dallas have finally figured out how to go web, but just remember there are still no liquor store sales on Sundays and that is a Texas state law.
Oh, by the way Houston, you’re not off the hook. I went to an NFL Football game in the old Astrodome to watch Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions take on the then Houston Oilers of Air McNair fame. When I attempted to purchase a beer at 11:30 AM, they told me I could only buy it before noon, if I bought a bag of peanuts also! I’m still scratching my head at the logic of that one.
When I moved to Tennessee, I learned that it is illegal for someone who is underaged, to pull your alcohol across a price scanner. The first time I encountered that, I sat there dumbfounded as a manager was called over, just to scan the product - which the underaged cashier then legally placed into my bag.
And those, my friends, are just the states I’ve lived in!
Not too long ago, I was in Montana and stepped into a distillery to do some sampling. They had a big sign posted that said there was a 2 drink maximum per day. It seems that, Montana distilleries do not need a liquor license to sell alcohol. However, if they do sell alcohol, they can’t serve more than 2 ounces of liquor, with each ounce being considered a “drink.” In addition, they aren’t allowed to have alcohol in anyone’s hands at 8 PM. That means, if you haven’t finished your libation, you’re going to have it confiscated! You were warned.
Here’s what I found out when checking the books on some other states:
In Indiana, if you head to the grocery or convenience store, they are not allowed to sell cold beer. And until recently, there were no alcohol sales at stores on Sunday, but this law was recently changed to just limiting the hours.
Mississippi is the only state not to set an open container law. However, municipalities in the state do have their own individual open container laws, and even if you have an open container in an area without restriction, you are still held to the .08% blood-alcohol limitations. Best to not test it.
In Ohio, no alcoholic beverages can be advertised near a church and no alcoholic beverages can use Santa Claus in advertising. To their credit, this second law is similar to legislation that forced cartoons to be removed from cigarette advertising - in other words, promoting to kids.
In West Virginia, you can’t buy alcohol if you are intoxicated. I guess that is a BUI.
In Kentucky, no sipping whiskey at the distillery, if it is in a dry county. Same in Tennessee, which leads us to one of the funniest and most ironic of prohibitions.
Jack Daniels, America’s largest selling whiskey by volume, has 100% of its product produced and aged in Moore County, Tennessee - a dry county. As they like to joke in town of Lynchburg, Moore is the wettest dry county in America, storing hundreds of thousands of gallons of whiskey which until recently, you weren’t allowed to even sample at the distillery. But the laws are loosening a bit. You can actually buy beer in restaurants in Moore County, but only if you’re having a meal. But that Jack and Coke is still off-limits.
As a side note, if you’re planning on touring the Jack Daniel’s distillery, you can always take the Dry County Distillery Tour they offer. No alcohol served.
As we come up on the 100th Anniversary of the enforcement of the Volstead Act and the official start of Prohibition, it may be shocking to many to think that some communities are still being impacted by the decisions made well over a century ago.
From determining where, when, or how you can buy liquor in these so-called United States, I can’t really offer you any real comprehensive set of rules to help you know how to acquire or consume liquor in this country.
Even the rule that you must be 21 to drink has caveats in several states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and others. Go to whiskey-lore.com/uslaw for a direct link to Wikipedia’s confusing maze of state rules and regulations. It makes for some entertaining reading.
Just know, as Amtrak once learned, these states and municipalities take these rules seriously. Follow the laws and always be responsible, no matter where you are. And live happy in the knowledge that Prohibition in small doses is much better than what we had 100 years ago.