Drinking in Utah has been zany since the first clink. Detailing the Byzantine intricacies of Utah’s liquor laws would take several volumes and acres of footnotes, but here’s a distilled history of drinking in the Beehive.
Pre-1800: A Dry State
There’s no evidence that the Utes or any other indigenous tribes living in what was to become Utah made or drank alcoholic beverages. So the history of drinking in Utah begins with the white man.
1825: The Big Bang: Mountain Men Rendezvous
Fashionable beaver hats fuelled a fur “ bubble” in the barely explored American West. Trappers became celebrities. (Provo is named after famous trapper Étienne Provost, and Ogden is named for another, Peter Skene Ogden.) In 1825, trapper-scout Jim Bridger and his mountain men met with compadres at Henry’s Fork of the Green River for the first trappers’ rendezvous to exchange pelts for supplies. Rendezvous grew into a summer-long party—with lots of “medicine water.”
1834: Debauch and Degrade
Captain B.L.E. Bonneville described the trapper Rendezvous of 1834: “The arrival of the supplies gave the regular finish to the annual revel. A grand outbreak of wild debauch ensued among the mountaineers drinking, dancing, swaggering, gambling, quarreling and fighting. Alcohol… is the inflammatory beverage at these carousals, and is dealt out to the trappers at four dollars a pint…” Many trappers squandered their year’s earnings in one huge bender, while Native Americans traded scouting skills and furs for horses, weapons, iron tools and firewater—an exchange giving tribes the seeds of alcoholism along with technology.
1833: Wise Words
The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints’ Word of Wisdom was first published as a stand-alone broadsheet in December. Joseph Smith was in Kirtland, Ohio, when he received the revelation that shaped, and still shapes, Utah’s liquor laws.
1834-35: Toeing the Line
In February, 1834, Joseph Smith proposed to the Mormon Church, “No official member in this Church is worthy to hold an office after having the Word of Wisdom properly taught him; and he, the official member, neglecting to comply with and obey it.” To no one’s surprise, the council voted unanimously to accept it. In 1835, the Word of Wisdom was included as section 89 in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
1847: A Dry Valley
The Latter-day Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley led by Brother Brigham, who was not averse to drinking beer when polluted water was an issue, but they say he never tasted whiskey.
“If I had the power,” he said, “I would blow out the brains of every thief in the territory, and I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves.”
1849: For Medical Use
Partly because of problems with bad water, the Mormon settlers started brewing beer almost as soon as they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. They also distilled alcohol for use as a medicine.
1856: Destroying Angel
Orrin Porter Rockwell, the bodyguard to Mormon leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, also known as “The Destroying Angel,” is credited with starting the first documented brewery in Utah at the Hot Springs Hotel and Brewery, on the piece of land soon to be taken over by the Utah State Prison. This was the beginning of the Mormon control of liquor production—unofficial then, unofficial now.
1857 : Whiskey Street
Despite the Word of Wisdom, after U.S. troops arrived in Salt Lake City, non-Mormon influences increased—Main Street between 200 and 400 South came to be known as Whiskey Street.
Porter Rockwell’s fame as a tough hombre caught the attention of world-famous English explorer, geographer, spy, soldier and ethnologist Sir Richard Francis Burton, famous as the first outsider to visit Mecca. On his trans-America trip, Burton stopped to explore Salt Lake City and visit a friend who invited Rockwell for dinner. Rockwell sent for a bottle of Valley Tan Whiskey, and he and Burton drank shots into the night.
1864: This is the Brewery!
On the site of what is now Hogle Zoo—across the road from where Brigham declared of Salt Lake Valley, “This is the place”—German immigrant Henry Wagener established the first commercial brewery in Utah.
1868: Strictly for Entertainment
According to historian Will Bagley, “Salt Lake City gadfly Josiah Gibbs noted that during 1868, when Salt Lake City controlled all liquor sales, Brigham Young purchased $128.25 worth of liquor—strictly for entertainment. (Gibbs claimed Young paid for some of it with tithing funds.) That same year, the Deseret News itself spent $189.46 on liquor.”
1862-1869: Tax Records
The U.S. internal revenue system went into effect in December, 1869; in that year, tax collectors in Utah counted thirty-seven distilleries, all owned by Mormons, including by Brigham Young, who (remember?) earlier said, “I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves.”
1870: Attention, Shoppers
Ads in local newspapers indicate that liquor was a thriving business in Salt Lake City. Wholesale liquor distributor Schwab, McQuaid & Co. advertised Kentucky Bourbon and Pennsylvania Rye in the Deseret News. They were sold at Z.C.M.I., the LDS-owned department store.
1872: Valley Tan
Mark Twain visited Utah in 1861, then Nevada Territory, met Brigham Young and wrote about the pioneer whiskey: “The exclusive Mormon refresher; Valley Tan is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah. Tradition says it is made of [imported] fire and brimstone. If I remember rightly, no public drinking saloons were allowed in the kingdom by Brigham Young, and no private drinking permitted among the faithful, except they confined themselves to Valley Tan.” (from Roughing It, Mark Twain, 1872)
1874: Fleecing the Gentiles
The LDS church-owned Deseret News ran advertisements for Old Tom Gin and Maltsters Chas. Rueppele & Co. which sold hops, barley “and all articles for Brewers and Distillers Use.” Though Mormons were proscribed from partaking of alcohol, Brigham Young was famously pragmatic and thought “fleecing the gentiles” was just smart business.
1875: The Wine Mission
Mormon converts from Europe brought their winemaking skills to Utah, inspiring Brother Brigham to establish the Wine Mission. He asked John C. Naile to go to Toquerville, grow wine grapes and make wine. He shipped it to Salt Lake City in 40-gallon barrels and Z.C.M.I. sold it as “Pure Dixie Port Wine” for medicinal use. At its peak, the winery produced 3,000 gallons of wine a year. Naile’s home and wine cellar are a National Historic Landmark
Six hundred saloons were operating in Utah in 1908 when the Anti-Saloon League started proselytizing the LDS church leaders. Then-Apostle Heber J. Grant took the lead in promoting Prohibition in Utah, while Republican Senator (and apostle) Reed Smoot worried about alienating non-Mormon voters. Meanwhile, Church President Joseph F. Smith was on the fence—he was pro-Prohibition but wanted even more leeway to defeat the anti-Mormon American Party. In all the confusion, the 1909 state legislature beat back Prohibition. Barely.
1910: Belly Up to the Bar
The Hotel Utah, the “grande dame of hotels” between Denver and San Francisco, opened. Mostly owned and built by the LDS Church, its lavish bar was one of the best in the West. Proceeds from the bar were used to pay off the cost of construction.
1917: Acting Locally
On Feb. 8, Gov. German-born Simon Bamberger (Utah’s first-and-so-far-only Jewish governor) signed a law making Utah the 23rd state to adopt statewide Prohibition. He had stopped selling alcohol at his resort, Lagoon, and supposedly offered $1,000 for a portrait of anyone more pro-Prohibition than himself.
Utah ratified the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing liquor.
1921: Never, Ever
Heber J. Grant aligned church policy with the national temperance movement and made absolute abstinence church law.
1925-1932: Still Wet
Federal agents in Utah seized over 400 distilleries, 332,000 gallons of mash, 25,000 gallons of spirits, 8,000 gallons of malt liquors and 13,000 gallons of wine.
At 3:32 p.m. local time, the Utah Legislature ratified the 21st amendment, becoming the 36th state to do so and casting the deciding vote to repeal Prohibition.
1934: A Beer Bounces Back
Originally launched in 1884 by German immigrant brewer Al Fisher, The A. Fisher Brewing Co. closed during Prohibition, but reopened again in 1934.
1935: Hello DABC
The first state liquor stores in Salt Lake City and Ogden reopened in 1935 under the supervision of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Business was (and is) good. In the first fifteen days of operation, sales receipts totaled $54,866. The DABC has regulated the sale of alcoholic beverages ever since.
1940-1960: Brown Bagging
Utah still didn’t allow liquor by the drink. Those wanting a drink before or a glass of wine with dinner brought their own, often still in the bag from the liquor store. Restaurants sold set-ups—ice and mixers—and customers mixed their own drinks. Lots of them too, because it was illegal to have an opened bottle of liquor in your car. The solution? Drink it all. Members of private clubs had lockers where they could keep their preferred liquor instead of schlepping it back and forth.
1947: Newspaper War
In 1947, Salt Lake’s two newspapers, The Tribune and the church-owned Deseret News engaged in an epic print battle over the liberalization of liquor laws. In the end, the motion was defeated by one vote. The two Salt Lake City newspapers used a total of 5,102.8 column inches of space during the course of the campaign.
1969: “Barbie Bottles”
In an effort to decrease consumption and normalize liquor laws, the Utah Legislature legalized the now long-gone and oft-lamented 1.75 oz. mini-bottles (“Barbie Bottles”) to replace the brown bag.
1968: The Sound of Money
The battle was again engaged: proponents of liquor by the drink decided to take the issue directly to the people via an initiative petition which required notarized signatures from at least ten per cent of registered voters who had cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election. The “Battle for Signatures” started on May 1, 1968 and ended on July 5. It was apparent from almost the beginning that proponents and opponents of the issue would be supported by one of the two newspapers. The issue was tourism and hospitality. The new Salt Palace convention center, scheduled for completion in the fall of 1969, absolutely needed liquor by the drink.
1990: Total Control
In 1990, the Utah Legislature mandated metering devices on all liquor bottles in bars and restaurants and outlawed mini-bottles except in hotels and on airplanes. No cocktail could contain more than one ounce of liquor. Utah became known as the state with watered-down drinks. A law took effect banning drink specials. Happy hours have long been illegal here, but many bars adapted by offering all-day drink specials.
2002: Going for Gold
During the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) relaxed enforcement of Utah’s alcohol laws because of complaints from an International Olympic Committee official. Funny how that works.
2006: We’re Back
High West Distillery obtained its distilling operations permit in 2006—making it the first legal whiskey distillery in Utah since 1870.
The amount of spirits in a cocktail was raised to 1.5 ounces of a “primary liquor.” Bartenders can add secondary “flavoring” alcohols, which must be marked as flavoring, as long as the beverage doesn’t exceed 2.5 total ounces of spirits. If you find that confusing, you’re not the only one.
2009: A moment of compromise
In March 2009, homebrewing was made legal. Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. (in office 2005–2009), a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a champion of less restrictive alcohol law to help the state’s tourism industry. Effective in June 2009, bars and clubs were no longer required to charge a cover, or a membership fee, making liquor more accessible to tourists and locals. In other words, making clubs into what other states call bars.
2010: UnHappy Hours
The Zion Curtain—a barrier between bartender and customers so drinks must be mixed out of the sight of tender youth—was restored, to almost no one’s delight. The Utah Hospitality Association filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Utah legislators who had decreed that discounted drinks would now be illegal. No more Happy Hours
2011: Tightening Up
Another legislative refinement, SB 314, gave the gubernatorial power to appoint the chairman of the liquor commission, banned minikegs and correlated the number of liquor licenses to population numbers, effectively making it harder for an establishment to get a liquor license.
2013: And, Cut
Right before the Sundance Film Festival, when Park City and Salt Lake City were packed with out-of-staters, nine restaurants were fined for allowing diners to order alcoholic drinks before ordering dinner. Under pressure, the Utah legislature got rid of the law. “Intent to dine,” however, is still a requirement for patrons of restaurants.
2016: Looking Up
In a bizarre twist, the DABC required the Bistro at the Eccles Theater to install a “Zion Ceiling” so that patrons on the balconies above would not see drinks being mixed and poured.
2017: Staying the Course
A big effort by the newly-formed Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association to do away with the Zion Curtain ended in a typically confusing compromise: House Bill 442 gives restaurants a choice between the Zion Curtain or a 10-foot space around the bar where children can’t be seated—the “Zion DMZ.”
(By the way, you still can’t buy a drink at all in Blanding, Utah, gateway to Lake Powell, Natural Bridges National Monument, Edge of the Cedars State Park and the new Bears Ears National Monument.)
Utah lawmakers passed the strictest anti-drunk driving bill in the country, lowering the blood alcohol content level to .05. Neighboring states responded with anti-Utah ad campaigns: “Come for vacation. Leave on probation.”
As of this writing, there are 15 distilleries, 26 brewers and 4 winemakers in Utah.
See more inside our 2018 Jan/Feb Issue.