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).
“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.
“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.
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.”
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