Tennessee Blue Law Blues


I recently moved from Alexandria, Virginia to Nashville, Tennessee. While in Alexandria, I wrote a bit about the silliness of the state's alcohol regulations and the arbitrary manner in which they're enforced (sometimes with SWAT teams!).

Here in Tennessee, it's a bit laxer, though there's still no shortage of silliness. I was joyed, for example, to find that I can buy army-sized bottles of good bourbon at Costco. But not actually at Costco. That would violate state law. Instead, I can buy wholesale-priced liquor at a building right next to Costco, that is owned and operated by Costco. I guess the logic is that squeezing all the booze into a smaller building makes it less likely that a minor will sneak out with a bottle. Or something.

Tennessee has an open container law, but only for drivers, not passengers. It's affectionately known as the "Here, hold this" law. There's also currently a movement underway to allow grocery stores to sell wine in Tennessee, but so far it's been held at bay by the state's liquor stores, which are currently the only places you can purchase retail wine. If you want to see some hilariously disingenuous dissembling, read the state's liquor store lobby's warnings that selling wine in grocery stores will lead to binge drinking and alcoholism.

Finally, here's an example from Nashville on how difficult it can be to navigate sometimes contradictory state and local alcohol regulations:

Taco Mamacita's owners Mike and Taylor Monin (who spun it off their popular Chattanooga restaurant of the same name) and business partner Chad Phillips knew that serving beer at Taco Mamacita would require going through a legal process. What they didn't know was how long that process would take. They opened on Dec. 11; Metro Council approved a variance April 20, allowing them to apply for a beer license, which after a couple of rounds of public comment and study was finally approved by the Metro Beer Permit Board at the end of June.

Due to a quirk in Nashville's laws, it's generally easier to get a liquor license (regulated by the state) than a beer license (regulated by Metro Nashville government). One of Metro's rules is that beer can't be sold in a restaurant that is less than 100 feet from a residence.

One of Taco Mamacita's walls faces a private home across Edgehill Avenue, necessitating the legal quest for an exemption. (The margin is pretty close. The neighboring coffeehouse on the other side of Villa Place is set back just a few more feet from Edgehill, so it conforms with the beer rules.)

Often the discrepancy between liquor and beer laws sets up the weird situation where a restaurant is permitted to serve cocktails and higher-alcohol beers (which are called "high-gravity" and qualify as liquor) but not ordinary beer with a lower alcohol content. Such was the case at Taco Mamacita.