America has always had really weird laws about getting drunk. American liquor laws are a bizarre rats’ nest of conflicting federal, state, and county regulations, and in many cases the end product is a weird mélange of colonial-era legislation, Biblical law, and modern referendums.
We’ve tracked down nine examples of the worst offenders (and put to bed one obnoxiously persistent urban legend) to aid all of our readers who wish to pull of crazy stunts like riding a horse while drunk or trying to buy any alcohol at all in Utah.
OHIO: FISHY RUMORS
Let Mandatory be the official and truthful end of a rumor you will see on literally every single list of amusing or strange alcohol laws: in Ohio, it is perfectly legal to get a fish drunk. In fact, Ohio has relatively liberal alcohol laws—beers are capped at 12%, wine at 21% and both can be sold in grocery stores across the state—with the weird exception that Fat Bastard brand wine can’t be sold in the state due to obscenity laws.
Nobody knows where the legend of getting a fish drunk got its start, but a brief email to the state liquor control board proved that there were no fish-drunkenness laws extant in Ohio’s current code of conduct. As for the fishing for whales thing, sure, that’s probably true.
COLORADO: LOW-POINT BEER, NOT TO BE ENJOYED ON HORSEBACK
Colorado may be the number one producer of beer in the nation but outside of a liquor store or one of its nearly two thousand public breweries, you’re only going to be able to purchase “low-point” beer of 4.0% ABV or less - which is among the lowest tolerances in the nation for grocery-store beer.
Somewhat more outré is the fact that for DUI purposes, horses are considered vehicles, which is often presented on lamer, less diligent websites as “you can’t be drunk on horseback in Colorado.” In point of fact, you can’t really be drunk on horseback anywhere in the United States, but while most jurisdictions will hit you with a public intoxication charge, Colorado courts will consider a drunk in charge of a huge unpredictable animal to be at least as dangerous as a drunk in charge of a car, if only because it’s much harder to ride three cars into a Safeway, as three drunken cowboys proved in December of 2011.
UTAH: PAPERS, PLEASE
While not the driest state of the union, Utah’s strict and complicated bureaucracy makes it difficult to run any sort of business that might sell alcohol—or even a business where someone might possibly drink alcohol.
Like Colorado, Utah has a flat ban on anything over 4.0% being sold outside of liquor stores, but Utah liquor stores are run by the state, close at 10 PM, and offer an indifferent selection of wine, booze, and “heavy beers.”
After the government of Salt Lake City briefly relaxed alcohol laws for the Winter Olympics, a mild thaw set in: over the next few years, the tourism industry successfully pushed for less obnoxious rules on the sale of beer, and Utah’s fledgling but renowned microbreweries (such as Wasatch and its risqué Polygamy Porter) won the right to sell all their products at their brewery stores.
IOWA: KEEPING TABS
While we’re spending hours of supposedly valuable time verifying claims made by competing lists, we figured we might as well clear up the ridiculous idea that it was illegal to run a tab in Iowa, except then we found out that technically that’s true.
The law does not apply to a tab run with a credit card, however, which is what most of us are thinking of when we think of a bar tab anyway. Bartenders may run into a stickier situation if they pour water down a sink drain while an officer of the law is present—under Iowa code 123 section 120, any liquid at all that is “destroyed” in the presence of an officer is automatically considered to have been an illegal alcoholic product. So… maybe hold off on washing the dishes.
LOUISIANA: SAFETY FIRST
As both a tourist hotspot and a third-world nightmare swamp, Louisiana has good reason to make alcohol cheap and easy to acquire. Booze of any strength or type can be purchased in grocery stores unless the municipality specifically outlaws it.
Frozen daiquiris loaded with rum can be purchased in drive thrus to calm your nerves on the way to work. And in New Orleans, you’re free to carry drinks from one club to the other—"wait, what’s that you’re carrying? Is that a GLASS and therefore BREAKABLE bottle of Abita Amber you’re drinking from while watching that homeless guy have sex with a stolen pool toy? I’m sorry sir, you’re going to have to come down to the station. For safety reasons we allow no dangerous breakable alcohol containers on the streets of New Orleans. I’m gonna stop by the daiquiri place first, though, did you want anything?"
STUDYING ABROAD: IMPERIALIST DRINKING LAWS
Thanks to the far-reaching scope of 1989’s Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act, your sophomore semester in Bavaria studying fermentation techniques is going to be a lot lamer than you imagined. As it happens, the DFSCA went out of its way to make it illegal for an under-21 American student to drink in a foreign country, even if he or she is of drinking age (and given that virtually everywhere else in the world the drinking age is 18, that’s likely to be true).
The rationale given is that American students are unaccustomed to drinking at such a young age (I’ll give you a minute to stop laughing) and that European drinking habits will harm their precious little brains and tummies. Most European bartenders apparently don’t give a damn, but be warned: if you develop a taste for Warsteiner or Pilsner Urquell or something overseas, that’s going to be a lot harder to smuggle out of gas stations than a twelve of Natty Light.
KANSAS: THE DRIEST OF THE DRY
Kansas is a state rich in reasons not to visit it or even think about it too long. One of the few states to have not ratified the 21st Amendment in 1933 ending Prohibition, Kansas only made on-premises liquor sales legal in 1987, and as of today 29 counties still prohibit such sales.
Anything stronger than 4.0% ABV can not be sold in grocery stores or gas stations, and that’s only because of a bizarre loophole classifying these low-point beers as “cereal malt beverages.”
To obtain a license to run a liquor store, prospective owners must be an American citizen for ten years, a Kansan for four, can not be employed in law enforcement, and must never have been convicted of a felony, a crime of moral turpitude, or any alcohol offense… and if you’re married, your spouse has to meet the same requirements. All of these strict and bewildering laws are surprising, considering the state borders on…
MISSOURI: THE ALCOHOLIC PROMISED LAND
Missouri! A lively state that serves as a bridge between the conservative restrictions of the Midwest and the good-hearted anarchy of the Southeast, Mizzou is typically counted as one of the most booze-friendly states of the Union.
While Nevada and Louisiana have similar loose controls on alcohol, Missouri distinguishes itself as a Midwestern oasis among obnoxiously anti-liquor states like Kansas and Oklahoma, a status that generates huge profits for Missourian liquor stores in border towns.
Missouri’s notably lax alcohol restrictions can be further abused by state-level laws that kindly allow any Kansan or Oklahoman to buy tons of booze without a ridiculous amount of red tape and hassle. It even has the best out of two Kansas Cities!
TENNESSEE: ONE PART, TWO PROOF
A number of states have strict laws as to what can be sold in liquor stores, typically restricting the sale of cold soft drinks, presumably so people don’t mix up a Jack and coke out in the car for the drive home.
Liquor boards in Minnesota and Tennessee, however, are so opposed to basic convenience that they forbid the sale of any non-alcoholic beverage, meaning that even the most basic cocktails require multiple stops to acquire mixers (Tennessee even prevents the sale of low-gravity >6% beer in its liquor stores, just to be that much more of a dick).
Enter mysterious New-York-or-Pennsylvania-or-Delaware-based beverage company One Part, offering tonic water and club soda infused with just the teeniest tiniest single percentage of alcohol and creating a beverage that under the aggressively weird laws of Tennessee qualified as two-proof “wine.”
One Part mixers sold so fast that most stores couldn’t keep them on the shelves, a problem aggravated by the company’s curiously flaky sales reps, and one day One Part sales reps just stopped answering the phone. The company apparently still exists in some form or another, but efforts to reach them were fruitless, and liquor consumers in TN and MN must continue planning a second stop at the drugstore to pick up mixers.
Next: Crazy Foreign Drinking Games
PENNSYLVANIA: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE WEBCAM WINE VENDING MACHINE
Pennsylvania has some of the weirdest alcohol sale laws in the nation — no beer in grocery stores, six-packs can be purchased in restaurants while cases must be purchased from special “beverage outlets” who almost never sell anything smaller than a keg, all liquor stores are owned and operated by the state — and frustrated wine sellers resorted to a suitably weird workaround.
Beginning in 2010, select supermarkets rolled out the “wine kiosk,” a gigantic vending machine with a built-in breathalyzer and webcam. Prospective wine buyers would breathe into a vent, scan their photo ID, and stand in front of the webcam so a liquor control board employee in Harrisburg could take a look at the customer, match him or her to the ID, and ensure that the customer was not knee-walking drunk or twelve years old.
After that, bam, a nice bottle of Frontera is yours for the swilling. The liquor control board only approved a few locations as they attempted to gauge how well their online ID-checkers could keep up with demand, but the experiment came to an end late in 2011 over a dispute with the contractors who provided the wine-o-mats, who claimed that the notoriously cash-strapped state owed them upwards of a million dollars.
Pennsylvania alcohol sellers are undeterred, however, and lately certain convenience stores and groceries are opening restaurants on their premises just to be able to conveniently sell six-packs to the painfully sober public.