Can I Get a Drink?

By Scott Abbott

Liquor Laws and Guffaws in Utah: Mysteries of the DABC unraveled.
by Scott Evans
With the relentless summer sun overhead, my mind tends to paint sensuous pictures of frosty mugs of beer, chilled cocktails, or a crisp glass of white wine. All the recent changes at the Utah Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control (DABC) may also have influenced my thought patterns. Many restaurant goers and restaurateurs alike have eagerly awaited change from the DABC. As of July 1, three commissioners of five completed their terms and a new board chairman has been named: Bobbie Coray, Gordon Strachan and Sam Granato are replacing Larry V. Lunt, Frank W. Budd, and Nicholas E. Hales. Coray was previously president and CEO of the Cache Valley Chamber of Commerce. Gordon Stratchan is a Park City lawyer and former member of the governor's Transition Committee. Sam Granato, who is also the new chair, owns Frank Granato Importing Company. After nearly 30 years, Kenn Wynn, the former executive director, has retired; the new director Dennis Kellen is in place.

Let's look into these changes and also try to make sense of Utah's quirky liquor laws.


In 1935 Utah set up an agency to control the sale and consumption of alcohol. Currently 18 other "control states" have laws restricting alcohol sales, all dating from the end of prohibition in 1933. At that time the federal government left alcohol sales and laws up to each state. Surprise…the state of Utah decided to control the sale of alcohol, creating the Governor- appointed and Senate-ratified body we know as the DABC.

According to the DABC's official website, "The purpose of control is to make liquor available to those adults who choose to drink responsibly-but not to promote the sale of liquor." Here's an amusing example of the effort "…not to promote the sale of liquor": the sole sign in all liquor store windows reads "Closed." During hours of operation, you will never see an "Open" sign, only the unlit "Closed" sign. Despite these efforts not to promote, total sales were nearly $204 million for 2006 with over $47 million of net profit.

Contrary to popular belief, the DABC does not directly make laws related to alcohol sales. Rather the DABC is "charged with the responsibility of conducting, licensing and regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages…including the rights of citizens who do not wish to be involved with alcoholic beverages." The DABC Commission votes regularly to award or renew restaurant liquor licenses and private club licenses. Only the legislature can change liquor laws. Both the Governor and the DABC can make suggestions and recommendations but the changes are made at the legislative level.

Governor Huntsman's early enthusiasm for tourism-friendly liquor laws encouraged many drinkers. In 2005, Governor Huntsman created the Transition Committee tasked to research Utah liquor laws and make suggestions to the legislature. Among other changes, the Transition Committee suggested allowing wine sales in grocery stores and eliminating private club licenses. Both changes would be a significant improvement for both visitors and locals seeking fermented beverages.

 Unfortunately, the Governor's enthusiasm has faded, and no liquor law changes will be considered in the 2008 general session.


None of the three newly appointed commissioners claim to be drinkers. In fact, only one of the five alcohol commissioners drinks alcohol. None of the newly appointed commissioners came from the restaurant or bar industry. With over 2,000 restaurants along the Wasatch Front, including several large restaurant groups, it seems logical that a DABC commissioner with experience serving and selling alcohol would be a boon.

To become a member of the DABC Commission, a candidate simply applies on the governor's website by filling out a brief form and attaching a resumé. Restaurateurs, brewers or bar owners reading these lines, please complete the form at http://gva1.utah. gov/boards/board.aspx?id=2100 and toss your cocktail shaker into the ring. We certainly need your help. The next opening is in 2009.

Dining with the DABC

Very few people understand what our 3.2% beer is all about. For reasons unknown, Utah decided to measure alcohol by weight (ABW) rather than alcohol by volume (ABV) as the rest of the world does. This is essentially like measuring our snowfall in meters rather than feet, just because.

What remains is a myth that Utah beer is considerably lighter than beer elsewhere on the planet. Converting the ABW to ABV places Utah beer at 4% ABV, just the same as most other domestic beers.

The rhetoric of liquor laws is not easily translated into the reality of an operating restaurant or bar. Questions  to DABC about liquor laws rarely receive yes or no answers. The following tidbits should assist the average diner who would like to order a drink or two with dinner.

(Note: These laws relate to a restaurant liquor license, not private club licenses.)

Wine by the glass must be served in a five-ounce portion. However, wine flights (ie. a series of five glasses per person at one time) are legal if each glass does not contain more than 5 oz of wine.

Draft beer must be 4% ABV. Anything above 4% must be sold and served in a bottle and can only be purchased at a liquor store or licensed restaurant. (If someone does buy or bring in their own bottle of wine, there is no limit to how many ounces they pour into their own glasses.)

It is legal to have a draft beer (4%) or glass of wine and a shot of liquor simultaneously, but not legal to have a cocktail and a shot of liquor.

Law does not require corkage fees for wine. The fee is at the discretion of each restaurant and can range from $10- $30 per bottle. Remember all bottles must bear a "DABC" sticker. Sometimes friendly servers will waive the fee if you leave enough for a small glass in the bottle for them to "dispose of" after their shift.

Whether you buy a bottle of wine in a restaurant or bring your own, it is now legal to take unfinished wine home.

Liquor, wine and beer above 4% can only be sold from noon to midnight. 4% beer can be sold from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Cocktails, shots and martinis must be dispensed through a metering system that measures no more than 1 ounce of booze. Cocktails with a secondary liquor and a flavoring can have up to 2.75 ounces (for example, a Long Island iced tea).

With all its quirks, the system is really not as oppressive as it appears. However Utah's liquor laws are nothing but confusing to visitors and locals alike. If someday Governor Huntsman's Transition Committee suggestions are heeded, ordering a glass of wine or beer might get a little less perplexing. For now, it looks like business as (un)usual for Utah's restaurants and bars.

Scott Evans is a manager and liquor buyer at Squatters.

This article was originally published on August 31, 2007.