Is it legal to mix beer and spirits together into the same cocktail, as bartenders have been doing for centuries? In 49 states, the answer is unequivocally yes.
But in Virginia, a state known for having some of the nation's most restrictive alcohol laws, the answer is a little more complicated, leaving bartenders, imbibers, and even state legislators confused as to whether combining a shot of whiskey and a pint of beer in one glass will bring down the heavy hand of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
The confusion began in 2006, when Spanish restaurants in Virginia were shocked to learn that their sangria fell afoul of a decades-old law forbidding the mixture of spirits with wine or beer, and one of them faced fines of $2,500 for serving the drink. The episode made national headlines, and a couple years later the legislature was shamed into modernizing the law to legalize sangria.
The revised law created an exception only for sangria, however—legalizing champagne cocktails or "newly fashionable beer cocktails," as the Washington Post put it, was a step too far for the conservative state legislature. So for years it's been assumed that beer cocktails are illegal in the Old Dominion. Virginia may be for lovers, but the marriage of beer and spirits was a love that dare not speak its name, at least within the confines of a licensed bar.
As someone who just wrote a book about beer cocktails and previously lived in Virginia, enduring its poorly stocked state-run liquor stores for five years, this issue was of more than casual interest for me. If I returned to my old home of Arlington to host a book event, would the drinks I wanted to serve be legal? Or would I have to cross the border into D.C., where the bartenders are unencumbered by such archaic regulations?
As it turned out, state delegate Jennifer McClellan considered the same question when a restaurant in her Richmond district was informed that the beer cocktails they serve are illegal. They took the issue to McClellan, who introduced a bill at the beginning of the 2015 session to legalize the drinks.
The bad news? The bill never made it out of committee. The good news? A closer reading of the existing law revealed that at least some beer cocktails were legal after all. Virginia law allows restaurants to mix spirits with beer or wine "pursuant to a patron's" order, meaning that individual cocktails prepared for a customer are perfectly legal. Storing drinks that mix spirits with wine or beer remains illegal, however, unless that mixture can be passed off as sangria (defined vaguely by the mixologists in the state legislature as containing "brandy, triple sec, or other similar spirits").
Most of the drinks I write about would therefore be legal in Virginia, but there's a long tradition of batched beer punches that the state's bars are still forbidden from serving. Ale Punch, a recipe from the great nineteenth century American bartender Jerry Thomas, or Blow My Skull, the favorite of an eccentric Tasmanian governor known for drinking his subordinates under the table, would both fall afoul of the rules. So too would "Beer Nog," a contemporary take on egg nog that adds porter to the usual mix of brandy, eggs, and cream. And if any Virginians want to go wassailing in the winter, they'll have to settle for low-proof versions of the beverage that do not fortify the warm ale with stronger spirits.
If all this seems unnecessarily abstruse for a field as loose and free-wheeling as bartending, then welcome to the opaque world of American alcohol laws. Though alcohol is hardly the only area of life that can complain of excessive regulation, it's the only one that the Constitution explicitly grants the states authority to regulate pretty much however they please. Doing so was a necessary compromise to ratify the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition. But eighty years later, the result is a hodgepodge of liquor laws that vary greatly from state to state, making life complicated for producers, distributors, retailers, and imbibers.
A new book, The Field Guide to Drinking in America by Niki Ganong, makes hacking a trail through this confusing landscape a little easier. Organized by region and conveniently coded with icons signifying a few important legalities, such as which states control liquor distribution or ban smoking in bars, it provides a bird's eye view of alcohol regulations in the U.S.
That familiar "no smoking" sign is now so ubiquitous that the exceptions (clustered mostly in the South) stand out far more than the rule. As even cities as libertine as New Orleans adopt smoking bans, I suspect that future editions of the book may find the rule so universal as to be unworthy of noting. The "ABC" logo indicating state-run distribution is also depressingly common, proving resilient against efforts at privatization. Only Washington has managed recently to shake off its state control system, but packaged it with a substantial tax hike that is arguably even more burdensome on consumers.
Booze rules are growing less onerous in other ways, though. Growlers, reusable containers that consumers can have filled with wine or beer directly from the tap, are now widely legal. So is taking an unfinished bottle of wine home from dinner at a restaurant or bringing in your own to be opened at the establishment. As craft beers have taken off, states such as Alabama and Iowa have raised limits on beer's alcohol content, giving consumers greater access to high quality beers (although in many states they'll have to travel to specially licensed stores to buy them).
Then there are the just plain weird laws. In Louisiana, where booze is plentiful, donut shops are the only type of restaurant unable to obtain an alcohol permit. In Ohio, grocery stores can sell "diluted spirits" that have had their proof lowered to below 21 percent alcohol by volume. Utah's absurd "Zion Curtain" requires that bartenders mix drinks out of view of consumers, who would presumably find the sight of a deftly stirred Manhattan impossible to resist. In Montana, consumers are limited to ordering no more than three pints per day in a single brew pub. Although it seems like every other vice is legal in Nevada, the state explicitly bans vaporized alcohol; in Alaska and a handful of other states, it's the powdered form that's banned. Several states have laws forbidding bartenders from pouring liquor directly into a patron's mouth. (Does pouring a drink down an emptied out bone skirt the law? Inquiring minds want to know.)
One interesting development is the passage of laws encouraging craft distillation with local ingredients. These are on the books in Washington and New York and offer tax incentives to small distilleries that use locally sourced inputs. Whatever the merits of these laws, they are reminiscent of the wine shipping laws advantaging local producers that the Supreme Court struck down in Granholm v Heald. Since states receive such wide latitude over alcohol regulation, that case stands out for ruling that the Commerce Clause trumps state discretion. These and other laws promoting local distillers could face a similar challenge.
If they do, they may become one of the few American liquor laws struck down by courts. The rest tend to linger due to lobbying by the beneficiaries of the status quo or through sheer inertia. That occasionally ensnares an unwary bartender who illegally serves sangria or a beer cocktail, and ensuring that alcohol writers never lack for material.