When Nicole Mills threw an apartment-warming bash this April, shopping seemed a snap. Almost everything she needed – food, beer, chips and dip -- was within walking distance of her downtown Miami apartment.
Except for one thing: the booze. For that the 26-year-old Mills was forced into her car.
“After having a long day of work … it’s frustrating,” she said. “It added about an hour to my day, way more time to just get ready to have my friends over.”
More miles, more gas, more road rage just so she can make cocktails? Who wants that?
Fewer and fewer Americans, it seems clear. And not just in Florida, where “Whiskey and Wheaties” legislation to allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores finally made it through the state legislature after five years of debate — only to be vetoed by the governor.
When Rick Scott exercised that power, he was bucking a national trend. From Utah to Pennsylvania, Washington to Texas, states are loosening restrictions on the production and sale of spirits. Even online alcohol sales, small now, are projected to gain wider acceptance as more digital natives come of legal age.
The changes are part of a broader pushback against longstanding regulations that clash with modern, more permissive sensibilities. Quickly evolving societal norms and technological changes have turned the “me generation” into the “now generation.”
Marijuana legalization is but one example. At a time when it’s not outlandish to expect pepperoni pizza delivered by drone, and a bag of medicinal weed curbside in 10 minutes, Prohibition-era laws designed to make alcohol consumption inconvenient can seem downright archaic.
Rules governing America’s more than $200-billion-a-year retail alcoholic beverage industry can be traced back to Prohibition's repeal in 1933. After that, each state crafted its own regulations designed to control alcohol through its entire cycle, from production to distribution to sale.
Two basic models arose. Eighteen states instituted a control system, under which state agencies act as the direct wholesalers (and sometimes retailers) for distilled spirits, and occasionally wine. Of those control states, only Washington has since privatized.
The remaining majority of states use the looser license-based system that allows private businesses to sell hard liquor. But they are also structured to prevent any one entity from becoming too powerful through a three-tier system that divides the alcohol industry into discrete producers, distributors and retailers, with no overlap in function allowed.
Producers can only sell to distributors, and distributors can only sell to retailers— and no person or company can perform multiple roles. With those systems in place, states have largely succeeded at controlling alcohol from production to consumption. They have also profited handsomely from their heavy regulatory hand. Accordingly, today’s alcohol regulatory systems have veered little from those first drafts.
Society, however, has changed. Almost all the old “blue laws,” which banned alcohol sales on Sundays, for example, have been revoked. While the direction of reform has consistently pointed toward liberalization, it has a slightly different flavor in each state because of their particular history and culture.
In Utah, for example, the influence of the Mormon Church has led to some of the nation’s tightest restrictions. Although the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City prompted some concessions, change since then has been incremental -- most recently with the dialing back of the “Zion Curtain.” A law in 2009 required restaurants not already serving alcohol at the time to erect a high partition, dubbed the “Zion Curtain” -- a barrier Wilt Chamberlain would have trouble peering over -- to shield diners from viewing alcoholic beverage preparation.
“Nobody wants to sit there,” Joel LaSalle, co-owner of Current Fish and Oyster in Salt Lake City, said of the restaurant’s cloistered-off bar area. LaSalle told the Salt Lake Tribune that the restaurant stands to make $16,000 more per month if he can tear down the seven-foot tall steel and opaque glass wall that keeps the bar hidden and isolated.
A new bill signed by Gov. Gary Herbert does not tear down that wall, but modifies it: As of July 1 restaurant owners can replace the “curtain” with a 42-inch half wall, or enforce a 10-foot buffer zone keeping minors away from the area where drinks are prepared.
In Pennsylvania, recent changes have been more sweeping. Since 1933, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has had exclusive domain over all liquor retail sales.
As Reason magazine’s Eric Boehm has written, a “combination of political self-interest and social paternalism” killed efforts at privatization of the state-run liquor stores for more than three-quarters of a century. Then, according to Boehm, Wegmans changed the game. The Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain licensed part of its stores as restaurants and used that area to sell six-packs of beer.
After Wegmans survived a legal challenge from the state’s beer distributors, other grocers hopped on the brew wagon, and Pennsylvania’s legislature followed suit. In 2016, state lawmakers passed legislation to allow businesses selling beer for off-premises consumption to add wine sales, along with other liberalization provisions. This year a proposal was put forth to allow liquor to join beer and wine on the shelves of duly licensed private businesses, which would effectively end the state’s monopoly.
Elsewhere, other liberalization efforts have chipped away, in some form, at the strict division of functions under the three-tier system.
Those lines between producer, distributor and retailer were first blurred in the 1970s as California wineries used the growing popularity of wine tourism to push for the ability to sell a souvenir bottle or allow tastings during tours, said Jarrett Dieterle, a policy expert at the R Street Institute, a free market think tank. The subsequent rise of brewpubs, and most recently craft distillers and breweries, continued the trend.
Craft breweries and distilleries are part of a wider artisanal movement, marked by liberalized laws to foster the rise of small local bread and cheese makers and organic farms -- the “cottage food industry.” Thus, in some respects the battle over food is now extending to drink.
In Texas, where craft beer and beer tourism are booming, small operations and established business interests are at lager-, er, loggerheads. While legislation in 2013 allowed small breweries to sell ale directly to consumers for consumption on premises, legislation to limit the number of taprooms passed the Texas House this year.
The specifics of liquor reform vary from state to state, but they have one thing in common: The goal of changing an entrenched system long in place, which means that any change is hard-won.
Or hard-lost, in the case of Florida. There, five years of debate and costly lobbying over the “Whiskey and Wheaties” bill ended with its passage by just one vote before Gov. Scott vetoed it, citing health and safety concerns. As things stand now, grocery stores in the Sunshine State can be licensed to sell wine and beer, but not liquor.
However, much like Wegmans in Pennsylvania, grocery owners in Florida have “figured out a way to have their cake and eat it too,” said Richard Blau, an industry lawyer. A common sight in Florida and other states with similar licensing regimes is a big box grocery with its companion liquor shop next door.
The “Whiskey and Wheaties” legislation would have allowed groceries to abandon the side store and stock liquor in the main building. Proponents of tearing down the wall will have to try again next session. Steve Schmidt, vice president of public policy at the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, likens the tension between liberalization and restriction to a pendulum.
“While we may be seeing the need for more consumer ease as millennials age and as people become more comfortable with the product, there’s always the swing-back,” he said. He was referring to drunk-driving fatalities and problems with underage drinking a generation ago that spurred the creation of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and more caution and regulation.
Paul Roberts, journalist and author of “The Impulse Society,” seconded the pendulum analysis. But he said technological progress can both stoke demands for convenience as well as negate arguments for regulation, by creating solutions for social concerns. If you’re worried about a delivery service making it easier for minors to get alcohol, there’s an algorithm to prevent that!
“I think what a lot of people realize is that, at the end of the day, they get so caught up in the wonder of the technology that they can forget to ask: Is this actually the culture we want?” said Roberts.
For young, on-the-go people like Mills, the answer is yes. The Floridian says she normally gets her groceries at Walmart — one stop and done — but her first preference is a meal-prep delivery service.
“If I could just get stuff delivered, even if I have to pay more, I’d rather do that,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll make it more convenient in the future.”