For decades, Pennsylvania has had some of the strangest rules about where, and how, you could buy alcohol.
I knew them well. Having grown up in Pennsylvania and returned there for a few years after college, I got used to explaining those rules—"I know, I know, it's crazy, but we have to stop here to get the beer, and then we have to drive across town to get the whiskey"—to out-of-staters who would come to visit. Every state has weird rules about liquor, but everyone could agree that Pennsylvania's were the worst.
Beer was only available from distributors and you couldn't get anything smaller than a full case (24 bottles or cans), unless you went to a bar that had a license to sell six-packs to-go and paid a hefty premium for the convenience. Wine and spirits were only available from one of the 600 or so state-owned-and-operated liquor stores. In rural parts of the state, that could mean driving half an hour or more out of the way, since the state stores are clustered in cities and suburbs.
That's changing. In fact, the changes have come so quickly that someone who moved out of the state as recently as 2013—as I did—can be stunned when returning home to visit friends and family. Now, I'm the confused out-of-stater who needs an explanation about where you can go to buy which products.
Many of the state's rules were legacies of Prohibition. But they began changing in the early 2010s, when a few large grocery stores began exploiting a loophole in state law that let them operate with a restaurant license and sell six-packs of beer. Unsurprisingly, the idea proved popular. Even as political efforts at broader booze reforms went nowhere in Harrisburg, the state capital, it became gradually easier to buy smaller quantities of beer. Other changes in the past few years made it legal for beer distributors to sell 12-packs, then six-packs. After a major political compromise in 2016, it's now possible to buy beer and wine at grocery stores. A limited number of large convenience stores attached to gas stations can also sell beer to-go, after a longstanding prohibition on selling booze and gasoline at the same spot was lifted last year.
For all the changes, there are still two big, related problems.
First, liberalized rules for the purchasing of wine and beer are good, but the changes have ignored hard liquor, which accounts for 53 percent of all sales in Pennsylvania's "Fine Wine and Good Spirits" shops. For whiskey, tequila, rum, and so on, the only option is taking a trip to a state-controlled liquor store and paying the state-determined price. The second problem is that it's still impossible to buy all types of alcohol in a single location, because the state-run liquor stores can sell wine and spirits, but not beer, while beer distributors and grocery stores can sell suds and vino, but none of the hard stuff.
Special interests on both sides of the aisle—primarily the public-sector unions representing state liquor-store employees on the left, and on the right, the beer-selling businesses unwilling to give up their special privileges and anticompetitive markets—helped keep Pennsylvania's awkward, anachronistic system in place for decades. But they've seen their influence wane, ever so slightly, in the past few years. A shifting political climate and an out-of-state grocery store chain fractured the delicate balance, and a Republican speaker of the state House and Democratic governor have done their part to liberalize the state's alcohol regulations.
Finally, Pennsylvania might be on the brink of recovering from an 83-year hangover.