Utah may have a teetotaling reputation and the newest, harshest DUI law in the country, but its innovative bartenders and brewers are crafting creative, delicious libations that would entice even the most skeptical imbiber.
Beneath the rainbow-hued neon dragon that presides over 25th Street in Ogden, Utah, a staircase delivers customers to a dimly lit speakeasy called 225. Inside, a dozen or so black-and-white Prohibition-era portraits of bootleggers and flappers hang in gilded frames above the bar’s cozy banquettes. Many of the framed photographs conceal a second, more risqué image. “Originally, the racy pictures were the ones on display,” the bartender points out, “but we had to change them.” In Utah, booze and nudity don’t mix, and 225’s hidden photos are just one of the many ways local establishments have subverted the bizarre nuances of the state’s Latter-Day liquor legislation.
Utah is not actually a teetotaling state, despite its Mormon majority. In fact, you can get buzzed in the Beehive State—and you may even have more fun doing so than you would in another cocktail capital. Here’s what you need to know:
The not so basics
Much of the confusion around drinking in Utah hails from several now-obsolete laws. The most notorious, which required patrons to purchase private club memberships to enter bars, was eliminated in 2009. Still, peculiarities prevail and it helps to have a general grasp of the rules before your next trip to ski the state’s champagne powder or hike its red-rock canyons.
Despite the quirks listed below, the state’s cocktail and craft beer scenes are thriving and industry folks have employed patience, determination, and ingenuity to make the laws work in their favor.
The rules, in a nutshell:
- Unlike the high-test cocktails in other parts of the country, drinks in Utah can contain only 1.5 ounces of a primary spirit, which means the gin in your martini is reduced by half and there’s no such thing as a double.
- An additional ounce of booze—say, bourbon or tequila—can be added to a cocktail as long as the bottle is affixed with a yellow sticker labeling it “flavoring.” The total amount of spirituous liquor in one drink cannot exceed 2.5 ounces.
- Only 4 percent ABV beer can be sold on draft or in supermarkets and convenience stores.
- Beer above 4 percent ABV is considered “high-point” and is sold in bottles in restaurants, bars, breweries, and state-operated liquor stores.
- Restaurant patrons must order food if they plan to drink; this requirement doesn’t extend to licensed bars.
- In its most recent legislative session, Utah voted to lower the legal limit for blood alcohol level to .05, creating the toughest drunk-driving law in the nation. The .05 BAC law is due to go into effect on December 30, 2018.
How the cocktails measure up
Getting a drink in Utah starts the same way it does anywhere else in the country: Step up to the bar and order. That’s when things get wonky.
First, your bartender will pop the primary spirit into a contraption called the Berg All-Bottle—a calibrated, metered dispensing system that ensures your drink contains exactly 1.5 ounces of liquor.
There are myriad opinions about the Berg. While some bartenders consider the devices a creative handicap, others, like Mike Allen, owner of Ogden’s Alleged, think metered pours help keep things consistent. “Most out-of-state bars require weekly or biweekly count tests to see if their pours on are point,” he says. “We don’t have to do that.”
It takes a village
Utah’s odd laws have given rise to a truly unique booze community, which started, in part, when the Utah chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild (USBG) was established in 2013. “We had to work really hard to make that happen,” says Amy Eldridge, Salt Lake City’s doyenne of drinks and managing partner at Under Current. Now, community members patronize each others’ establishments, swap recipes, and work together to nurture and hone their craft.
The state makes it difficult for bars to obtain specific spirits, but Utah’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) supports collaboration. “Getting interesting products [here] is challenging,” says Tracy Gomez, current USBG-Utah vice president and bar manager at Finca in Salt Lake. “If the state doesn’t carry it, we have to order a whole case. Imagine having to sit on 12 bottles of something obscure or expensive. But the DABC allows us to split cases with other licenses.”
New twists on old classics
Because of pour limitations, Utah mixologists get innovative with recipes and ratios, building what they call “split-based cocktails.” For instance, a traditional Manhattan contains a two ounces of bourbon. In Utah, however, where only 1.5 ounces of the main liquor can be used, a bartender will add an additional ounce of a “flavoring” to bring the drink up to snuff. In the case of a Manhattan, that “flavoring” could be an ounce of rye, which honors the classic recipe while still obeying the law. Cocktails also get a boost from beer, wine, champagne, or wine-based liqueurs like port, amaro, or vermouth, which don’t count toward the 2.5-ounce rule.
“We have to be really knowledgeable about our spirits,” says Eldridge. “It makes us better. We have to fulfill certain ratios to achieve balance and get creative to fill the gaps.”
Mad about shrubs
Knowing there’s more to a great drink than booze, Utah’s craft cocktail enthusiasts tap local farmers to source ingredients for house-made juices, syrups, and shrubs. The latter, fruity elixirs made with fruit, sugar, and vinegars, have bright, fresh flavors. Salt Lake Magazine even hosts an annual farm-to-glass contest: a month-long cocktail crawl featuring inventive concoctions whipped up by local bartenders to spotlight the bountiful offerings of Utah’s growers and producers. Recent favorites include Finca’s “St. Augustine,” a shaken rum drink made with clarified nectarine and lime juice, and Fireside’s “Zombie Paradise,” which incorporated a bell pepper–blueberry shrub.
Thanks to the 4 percent ABV cap on draft beers, Utah has perfected full-flavored session brews. Red Rock Brewing’s Zwickelbier, a German-style lager, won the gold in the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, and brewer Chris Harlin works magic with Hefeweizens, Belgian ales, and IPAs. “Our beers must be stylistically spot-on,” says Shantel Stoff, Red Rock’s marketing director. “You can’t hide flaws behind alcohol in a 4 percent draft beer.”
Utah brewers are cranking out plenty of excellent high-point brews as well, but session beers have a particular advantage with respect to the new drunk driving law. Gomez, who also works in the shop at Red Rock’s production brewery, points out, “With the whole .05 thing looming, I like that I can sit at a bar and have a couple of beers without worrying [about breaking the law].”
Utah’s booze community knows you might be skeptical when you belly up to the bar in Salt Lake or Odgen. But their culture of imbibing is thriving—and doing so with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Next time you’re in town, partake in a cocktail made with Ogden’s Own Five Wives Vodka or Distillery 36’s Brigham Rum. Or maybe pop a bottle at Wasatch Brewery and have a chuckle at the famously cheeky tagline of its Polygamy Porter: “Why have just one?” You’ll be glad you did.