Salt Lake Spirit: How Utah's Liquor Laws Foster Creativity Behind the Bar

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Dave Wallace at Burgers & Bourbon. [Photographs: David Vogel]

The reclaimed wood bar at the High West Distillery & Saloon in Park City is scattered with the kinds of cool bitters, amari, and liqueurs that any decent cocktail spot in New York or San Francisco would have in spades—Campari, Fernet, Chartreuse. Except these particular bottles have a large yellow sticker slapped across them reading "Flavoring." And, when I order an Old Fashioned from bartender Steve Walton, he doesn't simply pour two ounces of whiskey over an Angostura-soaked sugar cube. Instead, he grabs a pourer-fitted bottle of rye and inserts its neck into a circular contraption connected by a coiling, landline phone–like cord to a slim box under the bar that kinda resembles a 1970s ham radio. This device is the Berg All-Bottle™ 704 liquor control system, and it ensures that exactly one and a half ounces, and not a damn drop more, will be dispensed into my cocktail. The Big Brother–esque Berg (or a similar device) is mandatory in Utah bars, cataloging all pours for government eyes. And it's unintentionally forced the state's mixologists to become some of the most inventive in the country.

"As much as people groan, oh, Utah!, working here does make you more creative," Walton tells me with a big laugh. He's one of the most joyous and optimistic people I've ever met, traits perfect for bartending in a resort town where he has to explain the state's liquor laws to buzzed tourists umpteen times per night.

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Steve Walton at High West Distillery & Saloon.

You probably don't need to read Utah's entire 268-page "Alcoholic Beverage Control General Provisions" to realize that the deeply religious, historically Mormon state has some pretty unusual liquor laws. For cocktail-makers like Walton, the most significant ones, courtesy of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC), include:

  • Only one and a half ounces of "primary spirituous liquor" allowed per drink order.
  • Only two and a half total ounces of "spirituous liquor" allowed per cocktail or mixed drink.
  • This additional ounce is called (and must be labeled) "flavoring." It can be any spirit or liqueur, but it can't be the same type of spirit as the one-and-a-half-ounce primary spirituous liquor—so two different bourbons could not be used together, but bourbon and rye together are fine. Beer, wine, and fortified wine (vermouth) don't count as part of the two and a half ounces.
  • Utah is also a control state, meaning that all bottles of booze must be purchased from government-run wholesalers. "Specialty" products (including stuff as common on the coasts as Chartreuse) have to be specially ordered. And who knows when they'll ever arrive.

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High West Distillery & Saloon.

"In Utah, you can't just throw ingredients into a shaker—we have parameters we have to legally deal with," Walton says. "So it really makes you think where you want to take each and every cocktail."

Let's go back to Walton's Old Fashioned. Since he can use only one and a half ounces of base spirit—in this case, rye whiskey—if he wants to beef up the cocktail, he needs to add that ounce of "flavoring." This is typically going to be an amaro or liqueur, which he is allowed to jigger sans Berg machine. But, for this cocktail, he adds another spirit altogether: bourbon. Thus, you get a two-and-a-half-ounce Old Fashioned made of two completely different whiskeys. Sure, "layering" and "splitting" spirits in a cocktail is becoming more commonplace nowadays, especially amongst the tiki cognoscenti who enjoy using multiple rums in a drink. But still, you're not that likely to see two different whiskeys in a simple Old Fashioned in, say, Seattle or Los Angeles. "In California, you would never have to do something like this," Walton says of his cocktail. "You could make a five-ounce bourbon Old Fashioned if you wanted!"

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An Old Fashioned at High West.

Walton had never bartended in another state before landing behind the stick in Utah. An expat from Essex, just outside of London, he was ski-bumming his way around America a decade ago when he fell in love with Park City. And a woman. Eventually, he got married, nabbed a work permit, and landed a bar job at the Waldorf Astoria.

His first step? Getting his Alcohol Server Training Program license, a requirement for all Utah bartenders, which must be renewed every three years to ensure that those who serve booze are up to date on the latest laws. Because of this, each and every Utah bartender is incredibly well versed on what he or she can and can't do, more so than perhaps any other state's bartenders. As you can imagine, math—or "maths," as the Brit Walton calls it—is crucial if you want to bartend in this state.

"Let's take the classic Manhattan. It's actually perfect for Utah's liquor laws. The typical Manhattan would have two ounces of whiskey to one ounce sweet vermouth. But a three-ounce cocktail is illegal here, right? So now you have to get your base liquor back to one and a half ounces and then bring everything else in line to match," Walton explains, noting that the sweet vermouth would now be cut to three-quarters of an ounce.

"Utah's unique liquor laws actually support properly made, well-balanced cocktails," says Dave Wallace, the beverage director at Burgers & Bourbon. "More booze doesn't necessarily mean a better drink, if ever, when it comes to mixing cocktails." His bar, in the Montage Deer Valley resort, has an array of intriguing offerings. Many of these he likes to top with an atypical beer or wine floater, a loophole that allows him to legally spike those two and a half ounces of spirits, and thus give his customers a little more bang for their buck. He cites his Ginger Barrel-Rita—made with the requisite one and a half ounces of bourbon and a half ounce of Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, but then topped with three more ounces of hefeweizen—as a particular favorite.

"Going back through the history of mixing cocktails, the base has always been between one and one and a half ounces, with the tinctures, bitters, sweeteners, et cetera, comprising the rest," Wallace says. "The creative part for us is how to maximize the value for our guests." He does this by mixing different liquors and flavor profiles, hoping to produce a drink that is legitimately boozy, while still being balanced and delicious.

To be fair, a place like Park City—with "just" a 35% Mormon population and an economy built on well-heeled tourists—is a little looser than the rest of Utah. Thirty miles northwest, in Salt Lake City, the Mormon population still hovers over 50%. Oddly, though, the capital city has of late become quite a bit more liberal—some say that's due to millennials rejecting the long-held conservatism of the Mormon church—and it even has a newly bustling LGBT scene. The cocktail sphere is also flourishing, despite such comical restrictions as the so-called "Zion curtain," an opaque partition that separates bartenders preparing drinks from the customers who order them. The inhospitable barrier is a legal requirement under certain restaurant licenses, leading to amusing scenarios in which a customer orders a drink and the bartender then has to walk out of view to make it.

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Amy Eldredge at Current Fish & Oyster.

Amy Eldredge, the bar GM at Current Fish & Oyster in Salt Lake City, was mentored on classic cocktails by the legendary Sasha Petraske (Milk & Honey) when he helped open the Ranstead Room in Philadelphia in 2012. When she decided to open her own bar, Eldredge headed back to her hometown of Salt Lake City, seeing it as an untapped market in need of some cocktail culture. "There are ways to make proper drinks in Utah, and many classic recipes do not need to be altered," she says, citing­ The Last Word, the Sidecar, and the Margarita­ specifically.

Flexing her creativity, Eldredge experiments with unique 1:1 ratios that she would have never tried on the East Coast, thus creating new twists on traditional drinks. For instance, in her Daiquiri—which she humbly considers more "Daiquiri-­ish"—she uses both a light and an aged rum, in a move similar to how Walton makes his Old Fashioned. (And yes, you're not alone in wondering why light and aged rum are considered completely different spirits in the eye of the law, but two different bourbons aren't. Thus goes Utah's no-rhyme, no-reason liquor logic.)

"I've discovered some lovely combos. Light rum and blanco tequila with passion fruit. Bourbon and apple brandy with St-Germain..." She says she's proudest of a drink that has quickly become Current's most popular offering, The Siren. Inspired by The Pink Lady, it's a 1:1 ratio of an herbaceous absinthe and a floral local gin, mixed with lemon and shaken with egg white. "The best part, in terms of a 'Utah' cocktail, is that it is a 100-proof absinthe and 90-proof gin—so, yeah, you can drink in Utah!" she tells me with a big smile.

And it seems like if people in Utah like to drink, they like to drink well while they're at it.

Before Current, Eldredge worked at Bar X, Salt Lake City's first-ever cocktail bar, and still its most famous. Co-owners (and brothers-in-law) Richard Noel and Duncan Burrell bought the long-standing joint in 2010 after cutting their teeth at the famed Rob Roy in Seattle.

"Bar X was only a Bud/Bud Light bar when we bought it. Maybe there was Pabst," Noel says of his spot, which had been what he calls a "charming dive" since literally the day after Prohibition ended in 1933. Salt Lake City in 2010 was completely lacking in cocktail bars. "If people drank mixed drinks, they drank club drinks. There was a martini bar in town, but it was, you know, Cosmos, Appletinis, very '90s-style cocktails."

Bar X opened with a menu of classic cocktails: Sazeracs, Pimm's Cups, Moscow Mules, and the like. The owners were nervous—not only had most Utahns not had these drinks before, they weren't used to paying the $9 these cocktails would cost, either. Luckily, Bar X was a massive hit right out of the gate. Yet it took another two years before Noel and Burrell had the courage to make a menu exclusively of their own creations.

"At the time, I was going through a kick where I was drinking a lot of Manhattans," Noel says. "So I made a bunch of takes on that—some got pretty boozy." One variant he produced using Carpano Antica vermouth and walnut liqueur, the Rip-a-trois, was especially popular.

Noel, Burrell, and their almost 100% homegrown bartending staff were soon making the kinds of drinks that had never been made in Utah before. So creative, so inventive, so obscure that suddenly they were the ones having to explain to government inspectors what, say, tinctures were. Or the fact that bitters were nothing more than a food product, available at most grocery stores.

"When we first opened, we asked [the DABC] a bunch of questions about what we could and couldn't do—and we got back a lot of answers that we didn't want to hear!" Noel jokes. "So we quit asking those questions."

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Duncan Burrell and Richard Noel at Bar X.

Questions or not, the state's alcohol laws are slowly changing. Things were relaxed somewhat for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics—cocktail sizes got larger, and bars were now allowed to be open till 1 a.m. In 2009, then-governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a Mormon no less, ended an antiquated system in which potential drinkers had to pay fees to become "members" of private bars. But even if Utah drinkers surely want the state's liquor laws improved, you can't help but wonder whether these longtime handicaps have inadvertently created a cocktail Galápagos Islands, forced to evolve differently from everywhere else.

"I'm so immersed in Utah, I don't think of what we do as being crazy," Walton says. "It's just part of our creative process."

When I drank with him in late March of this year, Walton was preparing for the southwest regional finals of World Class, an international bartending competition sponsored by Diageo. He was one of 75 bartenders still remaining from thousands who had entered months earlier. In mid-April, he would be competing against bartenders from Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and Oklahoma in hopes of making this country's finals. He would also be not just allowed but pretty much forced to create non-Utah-legal drinks.

"The whole time I was competing, I was thinking, 'Be yourself, be yourself, be yourself.'"

Of course, he couldn't exactly be himself, because he would never dare make a three-ounce cocktail at High West. Still, competing in three different disciplines—a speed challenge, inventing a cocktail inspired by an American historical figure, and a dealer's choice round—Walton performed admirably, though didn't quite pull out the victory.

"When creating cocktails, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't," Walton notes, good-humored. "I'm thankful for the challenges of Utah, though, because it truly improves your skills as a bartender."

So, is there any drink Walton doesn't think can be creatively made in Utah?

"The Long Island Iced Tea," he says, with another hearty laugh.