Prohibition Utah: Cocktail Bars in Salt Lake City

By: Billy Yang

January 15, 2014

Utah’s alcohol laws have a reputation for being restrictive, to say the least. In recent years, however, lawmakers have made an effort to loosen the liquor laws. While it can still be difficult to find good cocktail bars in Salt Lake City, it’s not impossible.

“When I first came out here I was one of those who thought Utah was a dry state,” says Duncan Burrell, who moved from Portland to open Bar-X in downtown Salt Lake City.


Walk into a supermarket and it’s not hard to see why Burrell might have assumed that Utah was still enforcing the 18th Amendment. Spirits and wine are absent from store shelves. Beer is available at grocery and convenient stores, but it’s limited to low-alcohol beer – beer that’s 3.2% alcohol by weight (or 4% by volume).


Bar X | Cocktail Bars in Salt Lake City

First opened in 1933 as a beer-only bar, in its current form Bar-X is now one of the premier places for craft cocktails © Billy Yang


“The 3.2 beer throws people off,” says Richard Noel, one of Burrell’s partners at Bar-X. “That and the fact that you can only have one cocktail in front of you at a time.”


In Utah, cocktails cannot contain more than two and a half ounces (70ml) of alcohol. But bartenders at drinking establishments such as Bar-X have still found ways to craft proper drinks. When Burrell and Noel decided to get into the bar business, they wanted to focus on the classics, so they practiced making drinks such as the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Sazerac.


Bar X | Cocktail Bars in salt Lake City

Pink Lady Cocktail – order a classic cocktail off the menu or have a bartender mix up something special © Billy Yang


“I had a makeshift bar in my house and we practiced four to five nights a week,” Noel said. “A lot of the practice was taking these cocktails and trimming them just a hair to get them into Utah standards.”


The Bar-X guys didn’t want to compromise the flavour balance of their cocktails, so they opted to make some drinks slightly smaller to stay in line with state laws.


Pallet Bistro | Cocktail Bars in Salt Lake City

Bijan Ghiai, one of the bartenders at Pallet Bistro © Billy Yang


Matt Pfohl is another Salt Lake City bartender that uses the “quality over quantity” approach. “Sometimes you’re going to receive a little bit less alcohol volume wise “”- maybe half an ounce (15ml) less. We’re not talking about a huge difference,” Pfohl said. “There’s a misconception that our drinks aren’t strong. Oh, our drinks are plenty strong.”


Pallet Bistro | Cocktail Bars in Salt Lake City

Per Utah Laws, drinks have to be poured out of sight of restaurant goers. Putting on the finishing touches, however, can be done at the bar © Billy Yang


Pfohl bartends at Pallet, a Salt Lake City restaurant, which means he has to work around additional restrictions. By law, restaurants cannot display open bottles of spirits on the floor even if their floor plans include a bar area. Also, alcoholic drinks must be prepared behind a partition, out of sight of customers. Colloquially, this is known as the “Zion Curtain”.


Because of the “Zion Curtain” clause, Pfohl mixes his drinks in the kitchen. While this doesn’t hurt the quality of his drinks, he does see the Zion Curtain as a hindrance to providing exceptional service since he’s constantly running back and forth between the kitchen and bar.


Even with all the limits of state liquor laws, Pfohl still believes Salt Lake is a good place to get a drink.


“My challenge to people is to come in, sit at my bar and have a drink. Then try to tell me you can’t get an amazing cocktail in Salt Lake City”.


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Have you ever tried to find a cocktail bar in Salt Lake City? Do you find it difficult finding a drink in Utah? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Written by Billy Yang


Billy Yang

Billy Yang is a freelance journalist specialising in travel and food writing. His passion for journalism stems from the idea that everyone has an interesting story to tell and it is a reporter’s job to find those stories and helps share them. More of his work can be found at