SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – With changes to Utah’s liquor laws approaching on June 1 of 2022, it’s only natural that both new and long-time residents have found themselves contemplating the Beehive State’s past concerning alcohol. Before becoming the driest state in America, Utah had a rather boozy reputation. To make it easy for you, ABC4 brewed up a review of the unfamiliar history of Utah’s liquor laws and drinking habits.
According to Salt Lake Magazine, there is no indication that the Utes or any other indigenous tribes native to Utah made or drank alcoholic beverages during their inhabitation of the state pre-1800s.
The introduction of alcohol to Utah can be attributed to Trappers–not to be confused with hunters–who were renowned in the American West. Provo and Ogden both get their names from two famous trappers: Étienne Provost and Peter Skene Ogden. In 1825, historic trapper Jim Bridger along with his crew of men joined with companions at Henry’s Fork on Utah’s Green River for the first-ever trappers’ rendezvous supply exchange. The event soon became rather celebratory, with lots of boozy beverages involved.
Later, in 1834, Utah’s legislative council voted unanimously to accept Joseph Smith’s proposal of mandating members of the Church to undergo teachings of the Latter-day Saints’ “Word of Wisdom,” the document credited with shaping Utah’s liquor laws.
It seemed as if circumstances were beginning to prevail the consumption of alcohol by 1849, as issues with contaminated waters led Mormon settlers to begin brewing beer almost immediately after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. As noted by Salt Lake Magazine, they also distilled alcohol for medical usage.
Mormon influence started to become prominent in relation to Utah’s liquor laws by 1856, when the bodyguard of multiple LDS leaders including Brigham Young, Orrin Porter Rockwell, nicknamed the “Destroying Angel” for his reputation of killing an immense number of outlaws within the Church, started Utah’s first documented brewery at the Hot Springs Hotel and Brewery.
Non-Mormon influences soon ramped up following the U.S. troops’ arrival to Salt Lake City. By 1857, the area between 200 and 400 South on Main Street was known as “Whiskey Street.”
Money matters came into play in 1864, when German immigrant Henry Wagener established Utah’s first commercial brewery, as stated by Salt Lake Magazine.
Ironically enough, tax collectors in Utah counted 37 distilleries in 1869, all of which were owned by Mormons, following the implementation of the U.S. internal revenue system.
Brigham Young’s decision to enact the Wine Mission in 1875 was influenced when Mormon converts from Europe introduced their new Utah neighbors to the art of winemaking. The first Utah wine was produced in Toquerville and was transported to Salt Lake City in 40-gallon barrels. The beverage was sold as “Pure Dixie Port Wine” for medical use only.
The LDS Church was first enticed by the idea of Prohibition when Church leaders began siding with the Anti-Saloon League in 1908 amid the operation of 600 saloons throughout Utah. Former Apostle Heber J. Grant was keen to advance Prohibition in Utah, but his wishes were declined in 1909 when the state legislature rejected Prohibition.
The second time proved to be the charm when Utah Governor Simon Bamberger signed a law adopting Prohibition in 1917. By 1919, Utah had approved the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing liquor, as noted by Salt Lake Magazine.
Heber J. Grant later altered the Church’s policy to match up with the national temperance movement in 1921, mandating abstinence from alcohol for all Latter-day Saints.
From 1925 to 1932, federal agencies across the Beehive State confiscated over 400 distilleries, 332,00 gallons of mash, or the mixture of grain, water, and yeast that is fermented to produce alcohol, along with 25,000 gallons of spirits, 8,000 gallons of malt liquors, and 13,000 gallons of wine.
Then, in an act of contradiction in 1933, the Utah legislature approved the 21st amendment, putting an end to the Prohibition period.
The first state liquor stores in Salt Lake City and Ogden then reopened in 1935, under the supervision of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC). From there on out, the DABC has governed the sale of all things alcohol.
Despite the end of Prohibition, Utah still didn’t allow consumers to indulge in liquor by the drink at public functions. Residents found a loophole, and it became common ground to bring your own alcohol to restaurants from 1940 to 1960. Since it was illegal to have an open bottle of in your car, finishing the entire bottle of liquor became the norm.
As Utahns were drinking more than ever before, officials of the Utah legislature legalized 1.75-ounce mini-bottles in 1969 in an attempt to decrease consumption.
The Utah legislature officially authorized metering devices on all bar and restaurant liquor bottles in 1990, along with outlawing mini-bottles everywhere other than in hotels and on airplanes. The Salt Lake Magazine mentioned how Utah quickly “became known as the state with watered-down drinks” during this time, as no cocktail could contain more than a single ounce of liquor.
Utah received immense backlash leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics that were set to be hosted in Salt Lake City. As a result, the DABC eased up on its enforcement of the state’s liquor laws for the event.
In 2006, High West Distillery became the first legal whiskey distillery in Utah since pre-Prohibition in 1870.
Residents started to see liquor laws loosen up when the total amount of “primary liquor” per cocktail was raised to 1.5 ounces in 2008–meaning that “secondary” alcohols used to flavor the drink could be added, as long as the beverage did not surpass 2.5 ounces. A year later in 2009, homebrewing was made legal in Utah, while bars and clubs were no longer required to charge a cover or membership fee as of the same year.
Then, in 2010, Salt Lake Magazine stated that a former boundary set between bartenders and customers was restored, dubbed the “Zion Curtain,” which called for drinks to be mixed out of view of young diners.
Lawmakers proved to be staying strict in 2011, when S.B. 314 was passed. The law gave government authorities the power to appoint the chairman of the liquor commission, ban mini-kegs, and allot liquor licenses based on population numbers. All of this combined made for a much more strenuous process of obtaining a liquor license.
Amid the 2013 Sundance Film Festival which takes place in Park City annually, nine restaurants were fined for allowing customers to order alcoholic beverages before placing a food order. After receiving backlash, the Utah legislature dropped the law, though “intent to dine” is still prevalent in restaurants across the state.
By 2017, legislatures were still digging their heels in order to ensure Utah’s liquor laws remained rigid. After the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association’s attempt to remove the Zion Curtain, H.B. 442 was passed, giving restaurants the choice between the Zion Curtain or a 10-foot space around the bar that excluded youth seating, named the “Zion DMZ.” This same year, Utah lawmakers lowered the blood alcohol content to 0.05. As noted by Salt Lake Magazine, anti-Utah campaigners took to boasting of the state “Come for vacation. Leave on probation.”
As of 2019, Utah’s weight on beer sold in both convenience and grocery stores was raised from 3.2% to 4% – or 5% alcohol by volume.
The newest alterations to Utah’s liquor laws will go into effect on June 1 and are expected to ease things up statewide.