Make Your Utah Vacation Better with Smuggled Booze

Short of rescinding ridiculous liquor laws, the best way to deal with such silly restrictions is to ignore them.


Last month, I crossed the border between Arizona and Utah with a cargo of contraband in my possession. The goods—hard to legally come by behind the Zion Curtain even after recent reforms—were carefully concealed amidst other cargo, to avoid the prying eyes of Beehive State enforcers. Most importantly, my illicit cargo paired well with meat and fish and could be enjoyed in the time, place, and quantity of my choosing.

That's right. I smuggled liquor and wine on my hiking vacation to Bryce and Zion National Parks.

Utah isn't the only place where it's a joy to ignore stupid restrictions on alcohol consumption. But the state remains cluelessly proud of such rules, which are painfully tight even after a liberalizing law in 2017 made it legal for people to actually watch their drinks being mixed. When that's viewed as a victory, you know the place has a way to go.

With few exceptions, "it is clear you may not bring alcoholic beverages into Utah for any purpose whether it is for personal consumption, to serve at a private social function, or to give or sell to others," the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) boasts on its website.

Should you be fool enough to abide by such a ban, you'll have to do a little planning to satisfy your thirst—unless you're OK with the 3.2 beer available in convenience stores. The state has all of 44 full-service liquor stores scattered about, as well as "agencies" with more limited offerings. There is also "a world class wine selection at three specialty wine stores," as the DABC puts it, all in Salt Lake City.

No liquor stores are near Bryce Canyon National Park—the nearest is in Panguitch, which is half-hour drive each way. The Ruby's Inn General Store does have 3.2 beer available at the sort of prices you'd expect at the only shop around. You can also order drinks with your dinner at the lodge in the park and at restaurants outside the park gates and in nearby towns.

Springdale, outside the main gates of Zion National Park, is a larger community that offers greater choice than you find at Bryce. There's an actual liquor store there—Switchback Trading Company—that was almost a quarter the size of the booze section in any of the grocery stores in my town. There are plenty of restaurants with full bars, too.

But, if you've had a full day on the trail, forget about a generous pour. Utah law allows for "no more than 1.5 ounces of primary liquor in a mixed drink," which can be blended with other ingredients "not to exceed a total of 2.5 ounces of spirituous liquor." Your choice of red, white, or rosé can't exceed five ounces per glass.

Five ounces of wine? In Arizona, we call that a sip. My server at a Phoenix eatery last night offered me a choice of six or nine ounces of pinot grigio.

Utah's restrictive rules and limited opportunities for relaxation with a beverage require a period of quiet contemplation. Heavy thinking of that sort is best done over a generous pour of zinfandel brought into the state courtesy of a large and heavy cooler.

To be fair, Utah has improved its liquor laws. Until 2009, would-be imbibers had to purchase memberships in private clubs before being allowed to sit down and order drinks. I doubt anybody mourns the disappearance of that law.

And the state's lawmakers are hardly isolated in their silliness and presumption.

I like wine clubs, for instance, but when I tried to share the joy with my mother, I discovered that Maryland is among the many states that let a clique of local distributors dictate the rules. That means that "you must make arrangements to ship the wine to you through a Maryland wholesaler, using a Direct Wine Sellers Permit," according to the state Comptroller's office. Effectively, wine clubs operating in Maryland must be licensed as wine manufacturers—which limits the options, as you might expect.

I was able to find a club that would do the job. But I also discovered that lots of vineyards and wine shops around the country, fed up with restrictive shipping rules, have cut deals with shipping storefronts that will carefully package the goods and label them as something innocuous. If you look around in restrictive states like Maryland, it's impressive how many people receive regular shipments of books and antiques from wine country.

Theoretically, Maryland even restricts residents returning from vacation to transporting one gallon of the good stuff per trip—to be reported to the state. "One quart per trip is tax exempt," says the Comptroller's office. "The remaining three quarts is taxed in Maryland."

Uh huh. Remember to wrap those books and antiques carefully.

It's not that government officials are unaware that their subjects scoff at ridiculous rules—they have such violations rubbed in their faces all the time. But being who they are, lawmakers see the fault not in their laws but in the insufficiently docile public.

When sky-high-taxes and an entrenched liquor-distribution cartel made it very attractive to smuggle booze from cheaper Indiana to Illinois, Illinois responded by making it a felony to import more than 45 liters without a license.

That doesn't appear to have deterred the cross-border trade, to judge by news reports that portray a lively business that continues despite the occasional arrest. In January 2018 alone, the Illinois Liquor Control Commission asked 837 businesses to please stop illegally shipping booze to Illinois customers. That's a good sign that the benefits of breaking the law vastly outweigh the small risk of getting caught.

Honestly, how many people can the authorities arrest when their rules are sufficiently restrictive that many people see ignoring them as just good sense? That's true in all cases, of course, but it applies in particular to something as widely enjoyed as alcoholic beverages. On my many trips to Utah, cases of beer and bottles of wine and liquor have been constant companions. I've shared my stash with people I meet, who happily reciprocated with their own supplies.

So, keep the party going, no matter what officious party-poopers might say. Maybe they'll eventually get the message that their rules are unwelcome and unenforceable. Or maybe you'll just get to enjoy an afternoon drink without a lot of hassle. Just don't forget the corkscrew.