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Sorting Out Utah Alcohol Laws Could Leave You Tipsy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A woman walks into a bar and tries to order a drink. The bartender points to a blond woman on a stool across the room. Ask her, he says.

The thirsty out-of-stater sidles up, clears her throat:

“Hi,” she says. “Will you sponsor me?”

“Sure,” the woman replies.

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It sounds like a joke, but this is reality in Utah.

As many of the visitors to the Olympics have probably discovered by now, getting an alcoholic drink in Utah can be an adventure. The laws that govern the sale and consumption of alcohol are so arcane and applied with such apparent randomness that just finding a drink may addle their brains more than the altitude.

“There is just bizarre stuff,” said Jake Six, who works at Harry O’s, a popular nightclub in Park City. “I mean it is a different class of bizarreness than you see anywhere else.”

Indeed, for armchair urban anthropologists, a few days spent observing the local customs of alcohol culture in Utah yield a mother lode of harmless peculiarities.

Because their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints frowns on alcohol, most Mormons don’t drink. Seventy percent of the state’s 2.2-million population is Mormon, the state’s entire congressional delegation is Mormon, and the governor and 90% of the state Legislature are Mormon. Liquor laws are designed to regulate, tax and slow alcohol consumption.

Utah’s reputation can be a deterrent for young urbanites who want to move there.

Ryan Fray, 25, moved to Salt Lake City from Oregon five years ago for the skiing. Friends warned him the nightlife would be dismal. “I always heard Utah was a drag,” Fray said. “I heard, ‘Never go to Utah. There is nothing to do. You can’t drink. There is nothing to do but ski.’ ”

It’s true, he said. Clubs close early, and the drinks are thin. “So you just readjust your schedule,” Fray said. “You go out at 8 or 9, instead of 11 or midnight. It turns out it’s pretty OK,” he said. “It’s not like L.A., or Portland, where the club scene is a club scene. But it’s better than they say.”

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Residents who crave a strong brew now and then say the stringent drinking laws are a small price to pay to live in a corner of the world with perfect snow, mountains that carve the horizon into a breathtaking backdrop and enough wilderness to engage in just about any outdoor sport. “Such is life,” said Six. “That’s what it takes to live in a beautiful place like this.”

Nevertheless, the days until Feb. 24, when the Olympic Winter Games end, will be a test of sorts for bartenders across the Wasatch Range. Liquor laws are hard enough for Utahans to follow. Explaining their intricacies to fellow Americans, let alone a multitude of foreigners, could create a Babel-like situation at pub entrances while the Olympics are in town.

At least five nations--Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland and Italy--planned to import their own beer, wine and liquor, invoking “diplomatic pouch” privileges. The special status will, among other things, allow Olympic committees to evade Utah’s hefty sin taxes.

To help ease confusion about local drinking customs, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson’s office has produced a press kit for the approximately 12,000 journalists in Utah to cover the Olympics, which includes an explanation about how to get a drink in town.

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“It’s just the most cost-effective way to get the word out,” said Joshua Ewing, the mayor’s director of communications. “It’s to combat the misconception that people have about Utah--that you can’t get a drink here. There are more places to get a drink here than in the last two Winter Olympics combined.”

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, invoking laws that control the way alcohol is sold in 18 other states, maintains on its Web site that “Utah’s system of controlling the sale of alcoholic beverages is not as unique as most people believe.” But the Utah system bears some study.

Among its quirks:

The alcohol content of most beer in Utah cannot exceed 3.2%. (By contrast, the alcohol content of beer in California is unregulated, although beer that exceeds 5.7% alcohol must be so labeled.) To purchase stronger beer, Utahans have to shop at one of 37 state-run liquor stores, or one of 97 “package agencies,” which offer a narrower selection of liquor, wine and beer.

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Purveyors of alcoholic beverages are governed by one of three classes of liquor license. A tavern license means only 3.2% beer may be sold. No wine, nor spirits. A restaurant license means 3.2% beer, wine and liquor may be sold, but cannot be displayed. (Anyone ordering a drink in a restaurant must have an “intent to eat.”) A private club license means all three may be sold and displayed.

This means most establishments that an out-of-towner would normally consider “bars” are actually “private clubs.”

On the surface, what appear to be typical bars are not hard to find. Indeed, the city’s Web site claims that Salt Lake has more micro-breweries per person than any other U.S. city. But what happens once a thirsty soul tries to enter a bar or club is what’s out of the ordinary.

Visitors have two ways in: they can either become a member of an establishment, which costs money, or find a sponsor, which is free. Typically, a two-week membership costs about $5; a yearlong membership hovers in the $20 range. Most clubs allow any patron already in the club to act as a sponsor. Every “member” may then sponsor five guests at a time. Sponsorships solicited the wrong way can spell trouble.

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Adam Hull, who tends bar at Cisero’s Nightclub in Park City, said he was once taken to court, threatened with a $1,500 fine and suspension of his bar license, for mishandling the membership procedure when serving an undercover agent (both the state Bureau of Investigation and the local police department use undercover investigators). His error? He asked a member if he wanted to sponsor someone, rather than waiting for the non-member to initiate the conversation himself. His boss intervened, took responsibility for not instructing him correctly on the law, and he was let off with a warning.

“Just finding someone to sponsor you is a pain,” said Alyssum Hutson, 21, an acting major from Houston studying at the University of Utah. “It [membership] gets expensive for college kids.”

But Hutson and Summer Shirey, 22, also an acting major, said they have learned how to get what they want.

“I’ve never bought a membership,” boasts Shirey. “There are always ways to get around it. It’s people who don’t know the system who buy the memberships.”

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Probably the best advice to visitors navigating the night scene in Utah is what you’d get in any good travel guide explaining eccentric local customs: Follow the rules (don’t bother trying to understand them) and revel in the down-the-rabbit-hole feel of the place where things are not quite what they seem.

In the blocks surrounding Olympic Square downtown, many bars can be found in weird nooks and unexpected places. Temporary sawhorse signs on city sidewalks can be the giveaway for those in search of nightlife. The Dead Goat Saloon is hidden down an icy, dark alley. The Bull and Bear requires patrons to walk through a nondescript, well-lit elevator lobby of a downtown office building, down the stairs.

Park City, about 25 miles outside Salt Lake City, which draws cosmopolitan crowds for its skiing and Sundance Film Festival, is a different story. Bars are more out in the open; easy to spot. “This is it, Sin City of Utah,” said Six, the doorman at Harry O’s in Park City. “You can’t even get a bus here from Salt Lake....We are the heathens.”

In contrast to some of the more obscured Salt Lake City bars, Harry O’s occupies a huge warehouse-size space upstairs in a historic WPA building, across from the town post office. Harry O’s has the biggest dance floor in the state, a huge-screen TV, a stage, balconies, deejays and dancing, and will offer some big-name acts during the Olympics, including Sheryl Crow. The nightclub claims to sell more booze than any other establishment in Utah.

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Wherever you are in Utah, though, the rules remain.

But because they vary so much from place to place, figuring out how the membership rules are applied is as tricky as negotiating the moguls on the black diamond slopes of Widowmaker at Park City Ski Resort.

At Murphy’s Bar and Grill downtown in Salt Lake City, guests were asked to sign a large leather-bound book laid open on a table by the entrance. No fee was charged. No membership was handed out. When asked who was the sponsor, the bouncer said: “The owner.”

Around the corner at O’Shucks Bar and Grill, a sign on the window declared: “I.D. and membership required.” First, the bouncer told an out-of-towner there was a $5 membership fee, then softened. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ll charge you $3 for the cover and waive the membership charge.”

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Nearby at the Bull and Bear, when two newcomers waded into the semidarkness, as if on cue patrons at surrounding tables raised their hands and yelled out, “I’ll sponsor them!”

In the days before the Games, Salt Lake City and Park City were still relatively quiet. But explaining the rules of alcohol consumption to the slow trickle of out-of-town patrons was already proving to be a challenge for some bartenders and bouncers. At the Dead Goat, bouncer Danno Elder was getting peeved as the first groups of foreigners straggled through the door, and he had to explain the membership system to each of them.

“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s bad enough with the ones who speak English. But with the ones who don’t speak English, they are just looking at me like, ‘What is this guy talking about?’”

Then, he says, he sees their faces change, to a look of “‘This guy is milking me....,’” he said. “I can just see it on their faces.”

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Sometimes the bartenders use the rules to their advantage. “If they give me any trouble, I won’t let them in. I’ll just say, ‘You are not even a member.’ I’ve got a whole arsenal of rules I can use.”

As hard as the system is for visitors to figure out, it’s also difficult for bartenders: All liquor must be measured with a gun that dispenses 1-ounce servings; there is no free pouring of alcohol. Bartenders can hold only one drink at a time. Doubles are against the law. But a cunning patron can order a shot on the side to make the drink stronger.

Some drinks, by the nature of their ingredients, turn into a Utah bartender’s dilemma. “Long Island ice teas are hard,” said Six, of Harry O’s. “Some places do it, some places don’t. It requires five liquors, so it’s a challenge.”

At Cisero’s, though, even the toughest drinks were no problem. Without batting an eye, the bartender brought a Long Island ice tea, which typically includes equal amounts of vodka, gin, rum, tequila and triple sec (plus a little sweet and sour and a splash of cola.) He said he simply added one shot of alcohol as a measured ounce. The other four were mixed as three-quarters of an ounce, an amount that allowed them to qualify as “flavorings.”

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A Utah Martini can cause a double take. When it arrives, a patron might wonder if her eyes are playing tricks on her because the glass is a perfectly proportioned miniature of an L.A.-size martini glass.

“Everyone has these,” explained Hull. “If they don’t, they are stupid, because if you serve them in a normal-sized glass it makes your martini look like a shot.”

Hull added two large olives to raise the vodka line.

Beyond the private club memberships, the thin beer, the 1-ounce drinks, still more surprises await. At the bar of the University Park Marriott here, a patron can exit through a rear door to get to the restroom five feet away. But when the patron tries to return, a sign on the door advises that he or she must re-enter the bar through the frontdoor, which involves a walk up the wheelchair ramp, and around the outside of the bar--a distance of about 30 feet--"in accordance with Utah liquor laws.”

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“Don’t ask,” said the bartender.

No one can accuse Utahans in the alcohol business of not having a sense of humor about these laws. Greg Schirf, a Milwaukee native, decided Utah needed a brewery. His Wasatch Brew Pub boasts: “The Other Local Religion. Baptize your Taste Buds.” The microbrewery offers Polygamy Porter (“Why have just one?”) and encourages patrons, “Take One Home to the Wives.”

Squatter’s, another Utah microbrewery, advertises St. Provo Pilsner: “If you just said, ‘Oh my heck’ it’s probably not for you.”

But for those craving a light end-of-the-day buzz, the altitude quickly fills in where the diluted beer and miniature drinks leave off. Salt Lake City sits at a heady 4,260 feet, Park City at even loftier 7,080.

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“For some people drinking is a pride thing,” said Hull. “But anyone coming up from sea level is going to get hit pretty hard.”


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