TT: Prohibition Reconfigured

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back.  I’m sharing news about a new sale!  Then come on back and join Alan and I as we look at the oddities that have evolved from regulating drinking.

JANE: Well, Alan, last time you asked if Prohibition was still an issue here in the

Yo Ho Ho

United States.  The answer is, as with so many things, yes and no.

The “no” is that there is no longer a Federal law prohibiting the drinking of alcohol on a national level.  However, there is a crazy quilt of state and county regulations that make the issue confusing to say the least.

For example, in the same state you may have “dry” and “wet” counties.  As far as I can tell, all this does is raise the revenues for sale of alcoholic beverages in those “wet” counties bordering the “dry,” but maybe it makes the people who live in dry counties feel more secure.

ALAN: We used to have something similar but the “dry” and “wet” areas were suburbs in the same city.  Every time there was a local government election, the dry suburbs would also have a referendum to see if they should become wet. The dry suburbs seem to have completely vanished now. Our liquor laws were extensively revised a few years ago and now you can buy beer and wine in the supermarket (and even at the corner shop) along with your groceries. Strangely, the supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell spirits.

JANE: Our supermarkets can also sell spirits – also called “hard liquor” – at least in New Mexico.

Another restriction is against selling alcohol on Sunday.  Even in relatively cosmopolitan Albuquerque, you cannot buy alcohol on Sunday before noon.    I guess morning is for religion but afternoon is for watching sports – a religion that cannot be practiced by many of its devotees without alcoholic stimulus.

ALAN: Again we used to have something similar but now, since the bars and shops and supermarkets are open seven days a week, that restriction too has completely disappeared. Interestingly, it still seems largely impossible to buy alcohol on Sunday in Australia – their liquor laws are much more restrictive than ours.

JANE: Supermarkets handle the Sunday restriction by putting a rope as a symbolic barrier between the public and the booze.  I’ve often envisioned how it must be when a duly appointed clerk removes the rope and the panting customers rush in to get their supplies before the Big Game starts.

I believe that sales of alcohol are also regulated on Election Day, although I cannot remember right off if that’s all day or just part of the day.  I think this one dates back to the bad old days when the custom was to get voters drunk and then encourage them to vote for your candidate.

ALAN: That’s bizarre! In our elections, touting for votes in any way, shape or form on election day is illegal and anyone found trying to influence the voters in that manner would quickly find themselves in court facing stiff penalties. Even the hoardings have to come down the day before the election.

JANE: Uh, hoardings?   That doesn’t have anything to do with dragons, does it?

ALAN:  Hoardings are synonymous with billboards. But I tend to think of hoardings as temporary structures (often raised in people’s front gardens), whereas I think of billboards as somehow being more permanent.

JANE: Certainly the days when voters would get drunk at the candidates expense are over, but billboards and signs remain up.  The only restriction is that any such must be moved a relatively short distance from the polling places – I think a hundred feet.

Another restriction on drinking surrounds the legal age to drink.  These rulings can get confusing in the extreme as, once again, they vary from state to state.  When I was in college in New York State, the legal drinking age for wine and beer was 18, but 21 for hard liquor.  I assure you, students can get quite “pissed” on beer and wine.  They just need to process more liquid to do so.

Later, I believe still during my college career, the law was changed to 21 for all types of alcoholic beverages.  This was really annoying for those students who, at 18, had been legally  permitted to get trashed, but now could not do so.  Did this stop them?

ALAN: Of course it didn’t! Our legal drinking age has oscillated a bit as well. Currently it is 18 but there are moves afoot to try and raise it again. Part of the problem here is our tradition of the six-o’clock swill. It used to be that the bars all closed at 6.00pm. And so everyone would leave work dead on the dot of 5.00pm, race down to the nearest bar and spend the next hour hurling as much beer down their necks as they could manage before they got chucked out into the street.

The six-o’clock swill is long gone now, but the culture of binge drinking that it encouraged is still very much with us and many people, particularly young people, seem to think that the best way to spend an evening is to get paralytic as quickly as possible and then spend the rest of the night throwing up, picking fights and driving very fast.

I doubt that raising the drinking age again would stop this behaviour. That would require a cultural change rather than a legal change

JANE: I’m a little confused here.  Is the six-o’clock swill a New Zealand thing?  I’m sure I’ve read British novels where “last call” (as in the title of the Tim Powers novel we discussed a few weeks back) comes much later.

ALAN: Yes – the six-o’clock swill is completely Antipodean. The British licensing laws are something else again. They were originally introduced at the start of  WWI because the Prime Minister (David Lloyd George) didn’t want the munitions workers to be too drunk to make artillery shells. And so the pubs closed mid-afternoon, re-opened in the early evening and closed again at 10.30pm. All that nonsense was finally done away with early this century and now, as I understand it, pretty much anything goes.

JANE: I really like the historical roots to that.  Here I’d love to know the source of some of our really weird regulations.  When I moved to New Mexico in 1994, it was illegal for a liquor store to sell a drink in a glass.  However, in some parts of the state,  there were liquor stores with drive up windows where it was possible to purchase a bottle and a glass – complete with ice.

ALAN: I can’t match that! But I do have a strange term for you to ponder. Sly grog refers to the illegal sale of liquor, often homemade (with an implication of poor quality). It is sold from unlicensed premises and, of course, the government gets no revenue at all. Sly grog has also largely vanished now. It was another reaction to the lunacy of the six-o’clock swill, but since you can now legally buy alcohol here twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, there seems little point in it any more. I suppose that sly grog shops were the equivalent of the American speakeasy.  I think it is a lovely phrase, beautifully descriptive.

JANE: Moonshine is our poetic equivalent for illegal liquor – probably because it was made at night, by moonlight.  Other names for illegal liquor are far less attractive: hooch, bathtub gin, rotgut.  Home brewing remains a tradition, though.  You can easily buy kits for making your own beer and wine.  Occasionally, the amateurs become professionals.  My friend Pati Nagle’s brother Darragh has a small but successful meadery – nice stuff, light, not thick or sweet.

That reminds me…  A week or so ago, we were discussing how  when a local gem gets taken over by larger businesses, so often what was unique is lost.  I’d like to ask you about local gems next time…


13 Responses to “TT: Prohibition Reconfigured”

  1. Peter Says:

    Ah, morality-enforcement, always an excellent fuel for the Law of Unintended Consequences. My favourite liquor-licensing story comes from Montreal, Quebec. Provincial law in Quebec recognizes about a dozen different categories of liquor licenses, but only two are relevant here – the so-called “bar” license and the “restaurant” license. Premises that hold a “bar” license are allowed to sell all varieties of alcohol to customers of legal age; establishments holding a “restaurant” license are only allowed to serve alcohol alongside a meal (there’s also a “restaurant-consumption” license that allows customers to bring their own beer and wine – although not, oddly enough, cider – but doesn’t allow alcohol to be sold on the premises).

    Restaurant licenses are popular, being both cheaper and easier to get, so out-of-province visitors are often surprised when, after they sit down in a tavern, the first thing the waiter does is plunk down a cheese sandwich (in the loosest sense – two pieces of generic store-brand white bread with a slice of processed non-organic cheese-like substance between them) in the middle of the table. The Ceremonial Sandwich – which nobody is expected to pay for, much less actually eat – indicates that Food Is Being Served, so drink orders can legally be taken.

    The best encounter I ever had with this legal fiction came one bitterly cold February day when I dropped into my favourite cafe and ordered a shot of whisky (to start the thawing process) and a cup of coffee (to enjoy with a cigarette and the newspaper). The waitress sadly informed me that she couldn’t fill my order, but she *could* bring me an Irish coffee, substituting whisky for whiskey in the preparation; the whipped cream topping, apparently, qualified it as “food”…

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Does Quebec still maintain the distinction between ‘taverne’ and ‘brasserie’? Back in the -’70s when I worked at the Olympics, women weren’t allowed into tavernes but could go into a brasserie. By that time, the 2 were indistiguishable except for the sign over the door, but the rule was still rigorously enforced [I know, a bunch of us out-of-province Canadian Forces types tried going into one with one of the girls along. I wonder if it would have mattered if she’d been in uniform?]

      • Peter Says:

        The taverne/brasserie distinction survived all the way to 1988, when the licensing laws were changed to eliminate the “men-only” rule.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    My favorite dodge is from Wisconsin, where it’s legal for parents at a restaurant to buy alcohol and give it to their children. But you can’t buy alcohol in a grocery store in Wisconsin after 9:00 pm.

  3. John Michael Poling Says:

    Just to let you all know, the only day of the year when Albuquerque restricts/prohibits the sales of alcohol is Christmas Day. It used to be very different about twenty years ago or so where nearly every Christian Holiday was “dry” and the days where any voting was to take place. Curretnly, Albuquerque has some of the strictest laws and proceedures in the purchasing of alcohol from stores, and yet to obtain an alcohol servers license, you must attend a five hour, state approved class. Just FYI. 🙂

  4. Katie Michaels-Johnson Says:

    And that doesn’t even /touch/ on the nonsense that is the three-point beer!

    Oklahoma, in addition to having all sorts of crazy restrictions on when and where you can buy alcohol, complicates matters with different classifications of alcohol.

    There’s what most people consider alcoholic beverages: wine, beer, hard liquor. These can /only/ be bought in special liquor stores that can /only/ sell these things–no ice (nor can anything be refrigerated), no little gift bags for your wine bottles, no fancy bottle stoppers. Because the wine/beer/liquor can only be sold at room temperature, some beer companies will not sell their products in Oklahoma.

    Then there’s three-point beer. This is special beer (or malt beverages–Smirnoff Ice has a three-point version) with a lower alcohol content, not exceeding 3.2% by weight. This can be sold, refrigerated, in convenience stores (gas stations) and grocery stores, but NOT in liquor stores. All the big beer companies make a special version of their products to be sold in Oklahoma (and wherever else may have these weird laws).

    The laws for restaurants vary by county. Tulsa County restaurants can serve whatever they have a license for on Sundays, though maybe only after noon, but in neighboring Washington County you can only get three-point beer in bottles, not liquor, wine, or high-point or draught beer.

    Liquor stores are closed Sundays and all federal holidays (including the ones no one else has off, like Columbus Day). I’m not entirely clear on whether there are time/day restrictions on the purchase of this beer, because, frankly, I don’t drink the stuff. What’s the point? (ha) Within the past six years, we finally voted to allow liquor sales on Election Days.

    But then, it’s also illegal to buy a car on Sunday. Oklahoma is a weird place.

  5. epochwolf Says:

    I moved from Green Bay, Wisconsin to Seattle, Washington in may. The biggest shock was that all bottled liquor in Washington is sold in state-owned stores. In Wisconsin, you could buy liquor at any store that stocked it, including gas stations. My local supermarket had a small warehouse full of wines, beers, and liquors.

    Even more interesting is Wisconsin allows minors to drink at bars if they are with their legal guardians or spouse who is of legal drinking age.

    • Chad Merkley Says:

      There’s an initiative on the ballot this year in Washington state to change that and allow private stores to sell liquor. There’s a lot of money being spent by both the people for and against it. Personally, not being a liquor drinker, I’m ambivalent. I don’t like the way Costco has been pouring money into the campaign, and there are some concerns about the state’s revenue. On the other hand, the argument that it will increase the number of drunk drivers doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t see that having to go a liquor store vs. a grocery store is really going to change that.

  6. heteromeles Says:

    Although not strictly on topic, this discussion definitely points out that our laws regulating any mind-altering substance aren’t 1) simple, and 2) logical. I’m sure the same will apply to marijuana, if we ever decide to legalize it.

  7. Louis Robinson Says:

    Ah! Sundays. The Lord’s Day Act in all its wild and wonderful variations. I’m always interested in the idiosyncracies of that particular regulation because the restrictions vary so strangely from place to place. I’ll start off with a couple:

    In Manitoba it was illegal to sell groceries – other than milk & bread – on Sunday. I can’t for the life of me remember anything else that was restricted once Sunday shopping was permitted at all, but, right up through the ’70s, no groceries!

    I also recall from my time in Montreal a book-store owner commenting that he could sell pornography any time of the day or night [he didn’t, AAMOF, but the book rack up the street at Sears had a fine selection], but couldn’t sell hardcover books after 9pm or on Sundays.

    Anybody else?

    • Peter Says:

      Ah, the Lord’s Day Act. When the Ontario version was still in force but undergoing amendment in the mid-1980s there was a period when stores were allowed to open on Sundays, but only “small” stores (as defined by the store’s area in m2).

      My local grocery store got around this by roping off several aisles every Sunday and sticking up cardboard signs at the end of them saying “stock room, please ask an employee if you want to purchase anything from this area”, thus reducing the area that was open to the public.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    I love all the details… Law of Unintended Consequences, indeed!

    It’s wonderful and whimsical how people deal with such a complex matter — but, for me, the Ceremonial Cheese Sandwich is the winner thus far!

    Anything weirder?

  9. CBI Says:

    Jane wrote: Certainly the days when voters would get drunk at the candidates expense are over . . . .

    Well, not quite. I volunteer at the polls for major elections, in various capacities. During the 2008 election, one of the roving volunteers told me of a congressional candidate who had a beer-and-barbecue tent or truck set up across the street from a polling place. After getting their free stuff, voters were escorted to the polls across the street. I think the police or county clerk’s office finally broke it up after a few hours and a few complaints. (The candidate won in a fairly close race.)

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