Virginia's Awful Alcohol Laws Could Finally Get Fixed, Thanks to COVID and Gov. Youngkin

Government-run booze stores in Virginia may have met their match.


Perhaps more than any other state, Virginia is the cradle of American history. Four of the first five presidents hailed from Virginia, and its countryside is dotted with famous Founding Father estates, pivotal Civil War battlefields, and Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Authority liquor stores. These government-run booze stores are a direct descendant of Virginia's deep prohibition heritage.

After Prohibition, Virginia maintained a powerful temperance mindset, which let government-operated stores have complete control over the sale of distilled liquors. But what may have started as an understandable offshoot of a bygone era is now a woefully antiquated relic. Almost 90 years since the end of Prohibition, Virginia may finally upgrade its alcohol laws for the 21st century.

Virginia is one of 13 states that has government-run retail stores for liquor. Because distilled spirits can only be sold in government stores, every distillery that offers spirits on-site must become an ABC "agency store." Distilleries are forced to invite ABC into their businesses, which gives the state influence, albeit subtle. Distilleries must honor state-mandated markups on each bottle sold, which erodes the profits of the state's entrepreneurial craft distillers. The state also layers on additional excise taxes, giving Virginia the third-highest taxes on distilled spirits in America.

The ABC system, which exercises near-universal control over alcohol sales in the state, has proven notoriously resistant to change over the years. Not only does Virginia ABC employ close to 5,000 people, but it pads the state's general fund with hundreds of millions of dollars.

Few politicians can turn down the double-allure of government-backed jobs and built-in revenue streams, creating decades-long resistance to overhaul the state's booze business. Some politicians have resorted to invoking the language of the temperance movement, growling about the potential horrors of "saloons" overtaking every street corner.

Before COVID-19, Virginia ABC's idea of modernizing its system primarily consisted of trying to have a hip Twitter account—an experiment that predictably ended in disaster. But at the onset of the pandemic, Virginians started clamoring for real change. As more and more states began to green light things like to-go cocktails and home delivery from distilleries and breweries, Virginia followed suit via emergency orders.

These temporary authorizations will eventually expire. But between the recently elected Gov. Glenn Youngkin—who has repeatedly emphasized that Virginia is now "open for business"—and a new political makeup in the state legislature, Virginia has the chance to finally update incoherent alcohol laws. And numerous bills are already swirling around Richmond.

An easy win would be to extend the ability for Virginia restaurants and bars to sell to-go and delivery cocktails through 2024. Virginia declined to enshrine to-go cocktails in state law permanently—like many other states have done—because some legislators were timid about ignoring Virginia ABC's recommendation.

Virginia ABC is also attempting to join the modern-day delivery economy. A few state stores started pilot programs to ship spirits directly to customers, and some Richmond-based stores started offering same-day delivery. The state legislature may have even more good news for the distilling community this week after hearing a bill that would allow all distillers to ship their products directly to customers.

Delegate Nick Freitas filed a bill to privatize the Virginia ABC system entirely. Abolishing Virginia ABC does not have enough political support right now, but as national supply chain issues persist and cause more alcohol shortages in state stores, more groups may come to their senses. Politicians and consumers are starting to question the legitimacy of giving the government a monopoly over the sale of private goods like liquor.

COVID-19 upended alcohol markets across America and ushered in a wave of previously unobtainable changes in the regulation of alcohol. The American Prohibition experiment is not a part of history worth preserving. Nine decades later, Virginia may finally loosen its reins on the sale of alcohol.

NEXT: D.C.'s Anti-Mandate Rally Devolves Into an Anti-Vaccine Rally

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  2. >>After Prohibition, Virginia maintained a powerful temperance mindset

    also tried to keep people from marrying each other based on their suntan ... into the Sixties.

    1. Virginia is for Lovers (not those lovers)!!

  3. Back when Virginia ABC stores had a very limited selection of booze, during the holidays folks would go into DC to stock up on the good stuff, and ABC agents would get their license numbers and pass them on to the State Patrol, who’d stop them, issue a ticket, and confiscate the booze, which would end up for sale in the State stores.

    Selection is better now in Virginia, so I don’t think this goes on much any more.

    1. When was this?

    2. Selection is better, but the prices are still bad.

      This practice by ABC agents was stopped some years back, when the DC Council passed a law making the practice a felony. No Virginia ABC agent was willing to be sent to serve hard time at Lorton (the D.C. prison (now closed), which ironically enough was physically located in Virginia) to enforce Virginia's liquor laws.

  4. NC is worse.

    1. Only government can lose money selling alcohol, even with a monopoly.

      1. So thankful to live in Texas.

        Total Wine, Specs and other retailers stock literally thousands of spirit, wine and beer options. And because they are run by greedy evil corporate bastards, they compete for my business on price, selection and service yielding more choices and better prices.

        The only bummer about alcohol laws in Texas is the vestigial bible belt influence. No liquor sales on Sunday and no beer/wine sales before Noon.

        1. Who wakes up before noon, anyway? (Teetotalers excluded)

  5. >>Almost 90 years since the end of Prohibition, Virginia may finally upgrade its alcohol laws for the 21st century

    Upgrade? How about abolish? Does America really need any alcohol laws at all? Except for DUI, which are motor vehicle laws.

    The alcohol laws are a key element of the olgarchy's youth oppression machine. What kind of people were in Tiannamen Square? Young people. They're the ones who rise up against the government, especially young men. Thus the "New Deal" era targeted or abolished all the typical male behaviors outside the factory - smoking, drinking, dice games, sex (brothels). All gone.

  6. Similar situation in Edina, MN. A wealthy first ring suburb of MInneapolis. The only liquor available is at Edina Liquor stores. Nice people, decent selection, but the Whole Foods is dry…the boutique cheese and wine store in on the border in mpls. Super dumb.

  7. This is one of the better Reason articles. It picked an interesting subject, and was well written. I think the author accidentally omitted the mandatory Orange Man Bad reference, but it was a great article nevertheless.

  8. I like that in the case of alcohol sales in Virginia, the word "privatize" is used accurately - state control is relinquished and private parties are allowed to make their own choices. When it comes to pensions, those pushing "privatization" really pervert the concept - since they really mean forcing individuals to invest into heavily regulated securities markets. There is nothing private about being forced to spend your money in a specific, government sanctioned activity.

  9. I lived in PA for 18 months. During that time the only place to buy a 6-pack was a pizzeria. No booze at for sale anywhere other than pizzerias of state run stores. Someone was working to change the laws when I left the state in '10.

    Still recall how shocked my co-worker was when I told him I could by booze anywhere, including gas stations, in Michigan.

  10. WA state voters thought getting rid of government controlled liquor stores was great. Until they kept getting surprised at the register with all the taxes that were added on.
    According to data from the Washington State Department of Revenue, the average price for a liter of liquor has gone up nearly 20 percent since privatization. When you take inflation into account, the increase is just under 8 percent.
    The biggest dip in price came in 2012, when the average price for a liter of liquor sat at $24.96 after tax, according to the WDOR. The most recent 2019 data lists the average price as $26.88 after tax, the second-highest the average has reached since the switch.
    The highest average in 2016, when it sat at $27.02 after tax.

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