Who Says You Can’t Get a Drink in Utah?

People say you can’t get a drink in Utah. It makes sense–Utah is full of Mormons and Mormons are known for their rules against drinking (and smoking, and coffee . . . being Mormon sucks). Utah really does have some of the most restrictive liquor laws in the United States, but it’s not a dry state by any stretch of the imagination. It’s all much, much weirder than just not getting a drink.

The “no drinking, no smoking, no coffee or tea” rules come straight from Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith. Collectively, they’re called the “Word of Wisdom.” A lot of people already know that. What a lot of people don’t know is this: for the first several decades after the Mormons were founded, the Word of Wisdom was considered not a commandment but a suggestion. Utah’s not a dry state because, for a long damn time, Mormons weren’t exactly a dry church.

Wine and whiskey have been in Utah almost as long as Mormons because, well, Mormons used to make ’em. The Word of Wisdom’s full text mentions sacramental wine “of your own make,” so making wine was a priority as Mormons populated Utah. The full text makes no mention of sacramental whiskey, but church-run stores sold it anyway. It was “medicinal” and a much-needed source of cash.

Now fast forward a few decades to the Prohibition era. Mormons have tightened up on the teetotaling and are starting to teach it as a requirement for full church fellowship. Though Utah is still a Mormon heartland, they’re not the overwhelming majority they once were, so prohibition was less popular than you might think. Mormons and non-Mormons alikebootlegged their asses off once alcohol was outlawed, and when the time came, Utah voted to repeal Prohibition. Utah was, in fact, the state that tipped the scales and made alcohol legal again all over the country.


Which brings us to the present day. People say you can’t get a drink in Utah, but that’s never been the case. Utah’s liquor laws represent a proud tradition of producing winebeer, andfine spirits and then pretending nobody actually drinks them.

These days, the Word of Wisdom is a big deal in Mormondom, and there’s a lot of status attached to perfectly following the “no drinking” rule. A lot of Mormons have no clue how alcohol works, and they pretty much think that a beer with dinner will make you drunk and that most drinkers are one shot away from being alcoholics. Utah legislators can score easy points with Mormon constituents by “protecting” them from demon rum.

Which is why grocery stores can only sell weak beer and there’s literally a constant shortageof liquor licenses for restaurants in this state. It’s why, when you finally find a restaurant that can serve you a drink, you have to show your ID to the waiter (and possibly the manager), prove that you’re eating, then wait while they mix your drink behind a screen. Because it’s fine if kids see you drinking, but the second you let them see how a margarita is made they’ll run home and try it themselves.

It’s why legislators are pushing to put breathalyzers in Utah bars. How will that not become the most dangerous drinking game ever?

It’s why I can only buy wine at a state-run liquor store between 11 AM and 7 PM, Monday through Saturday. (To be fair, some of the liquor stores stay open later. Just not any near me.) Oh, and I can’t buy booze on an election day. If they sold booze on election days, people would get liquored up and vote for liberals.

Utah is determined to make drinking such a pain in the ass that you just won’t bother to do it anymore, but it might just be backfiring in the worst possible way. All those restrictions mean that Utah’s drinkers tend to stockpile liquor at home–since it’s hard to pick up a bottle of wine on the way home from work, you tend to keep several kinds at home so you’ll have it when you need it. When you take a quick jaunt to Las Vegas or visit friends in Wyoming or Colorado, you bring home cheap beer and/or a few bottles of hard-to-find liquor. Utah has high rates of teen drinking, and all that stockpiled liquor might be part of the problem–kids learn early that alcohol is something to stash and drink at home, and many a curious teen has access to a larger-than-necessary stash to drink from.

That’s right. All these restrictions, instead of making impressionable kids safe from alcohol, might just be making them really interested in drinking as much as they can get their hands on. They leave no middle ground and little room for modeling responsible, moderate drinking. It’s easy to get a drink in Utah once you know the system, but thanks to the weird black-and-white culture, you might not know when to stop.

Featured image by user George Hodan

Wine bottles by user Kevin Casper


Jo S

Jo S. is more scared of you than you are of her. She's a stay-at-home mom in the heart of Utah, where three kids is considered a small family. She cooks, crochets, blogs, and runs a small but dedicated skeptical book club.

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  1. Even in Wisconsin we have a few regulations. I can’t by hard liqueur or wine after 8 (or is that 9), but bar time is still 2 am so you have a few options.

    I’m not surprised to see the correlation between restrictive drinking laws and abusive teenage drinking. It is a reflection of what we have been seeing with abstinence only education and risky sexual behavior.

    1. Yes, there are clear parallels there. Around here, the culture is weird around both sex and alcohol, and even for adults it can be hard to figure out what healthy patterns look like.

    2. It’s 9, and you can’t buy beer either in many counties/cities, including Madison. Still not nearly as restrictive as Utah, with their state owned liquor stores. I was still underage when I lived there, but I found the blank brick buildings weird.

      One of the strangest laws I’ve seen is when I was traveling in Ohio and wanted to pick up a bottle of liquor. In grocery stores they can only sell liquor that is under 21% ABV. This means that they have a full section of liquors, but they’re all watered down to half strength. Luckily the prices were modified as well.

      1. Half strength liquor? That’s new to me. I’m fascinated by the weird logic behind various liquor laws. And truly, Utah mostly rates as ‘most restrictive’ because the laws are statewide.

        The first time I went to find my city’s liquor store, it was so plain and far from the street, I drove right by it twice without even seeing it.

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