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Utah Business

Bootleggers, Sugar House Distillery

The Next Generation of Bootleggers

When my husband and I moved to Utah three years ago, we thought the same thing everyone else in the country did: Utah was the prohibition state. The one with all the liquor laws. It wasn’t true. In fact, we’ve lived in states with much stricter liquor laws (Pennsylvania for one). But if there ever was an absence of actual restriction, there was at least a mindset of restriction. People thought Utah was dry, and in a way, that gave Utah an edge. 

Religion & Distilling

Take a look at the states with the strictest liquor laws and you’ll find they have one thing in common: religion. Pennsylvania had their Quakers, Massachusetts had their Puritans. By the time a constitutional ban was placed on the sale of alcoholic beverages―otherwise known as Prohibition―it was largely the Protestants who were to blame (Catholics and Lutherans were, of course, diametrically opposed).

Then there were the Mormons.

Like the governmental forces that closed national alcohol sales in 1920, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became for the Utah alcohol industry a symbol of enforced morality—however accurately—and the gentiles were ready to rise up against it. Perhaps that is the very curiosity that led Utah to become one of the most innovative and interesting alcohol industries in the country. The Wild West, as it were. Because though the Quakers and Puritans have since diminished in social stature, the Mormons have remained. Ever enforcers of our better natures.

Certainly, Utah’s culture has corralled around that very idea, and many Utah companies have capitalized on the state’s pioneer parentage. Five Wives Vodka, comes to mind. As does Polygamy Porter by Wasatch Brewery. On the Mormon holiday “Pioneer Day,” non-Mormons celebrate with the countercultural “Pie and Beer Day.” And when the Broadway Show “Book of Mormon” came through Utah, the aptly named “Cook of Mormon” food truck sat perched outside to feed us. 

Prohibition Culture (Minus The Prohibition)

That’s not to say there aren’t liquor laws in Utah, or that they aren’t particularly strict. But our laws aren’t so different from other states’ laws. The only difference is that, in Utah, the culture that created them remains. When prohibition was enacted in New York City, close to 100,000 speakeasies opened in the law’s first five years. But though the law has since been repealed, in Utah, the underground alcohol industry remains.

It’s a tight-knit community of winemakers, brewers, and distillers, and they’ve all had their share of regulatory woes, but they also share something greater: the bootlegging spirit of Utah’s pioneering ancestors. “We’re in a bubble here,” says James Fowler, the founder of Sugarhouse Distillery. “We can’t advertise so it’s difficult to get in front of customers, but if you can figure out how to sell here, you can really sell here.” For that reason, many of the brewers and distillers contacted for this article have no problem with Utah’s liquor laws. In a way, it keeps the competition out. “The only difference between our liquor laws and the next state’s liquor laws is the perception that ours are stricter. Let’s keep it that way.”

“”The only difference between our liquor laws and the next state’s liquor laws is the perception that ours are stricter. Let’s keep it that way.”

-James Fowler | Owner | Sugarhouse Distillery

But certainly, there’s some truth to the rumors. Amidst interviews, I hear all kinds of stories that hint at puritanical opposition. Sugarhouse Distillery was barred from opening in Riverdale, for instance. Not because it was illegal to distill, but because the town just didn’t want them there. Similarly, Five Wives Vodka was banned from Idaho simply because the state didn’t like the company’s label (a portrait of five sister wives). These early setbacks have since been remedied, but the sentiment remains the same: some places just don’t want the alcohol industry on their turf. And that has more to do with culture than with liquor laws.

Bootleggers, Sugar House Distillery

The Truth About Liquor Laws In Utah

That being said, there is some confusion as to how liquor laws affect the businesses here. A couple of times I was pointed to the fact that Epic Brewery, once a Utah mainstay, expanded their operations to Colorado with good reason. The company cited “restrictive liquor laws” as the reason for the move and said they were floored when Denver rolled out the red carpet to help them find a new location. “It speaks volumes to Denver,” Epic’s cofounder Ryan Arnold said at the time. “That would never happen in Utah.”

The difficulties, however, are nuanced. And the right wording can get you around just about anything. Sugarhouse Distillery’s first attempt to open in Sugarhouse was a no-go, recounts Mr. Fowler. The fire marshal in South Salt Lake wanted engineering drawings that would have cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. The next night, however, the city called back and asked for a do-over. The city sat down with Mr. Fowler and read through every line of the fire code until they decided everyone was on board with it.

Then there’s the wine industry. Stephen Mackay, owner of Old Town Cellars, says they are able get around the “no keg” laws by casking their wines in hard plastic containers filled with air-tight bladders. “We were able to make the argument that there is no difference between our plastic key keg and a box of wine,” he says. “But I have the email from them framed in case anyone ever says we can’t do it.”

And then there are the food laws. Enacted in recent years, the “package agency license” requires wineries, breweries, or distilleries to offer “substantial food” in their tasting rooms. When I asked the DABC for clarification, they said that means more than a bowl of peanuts, but not so much as a meal. Thanks to the ambiguity, producers are able to get around the regulation pretty easily. Proper Brewing even has a section on their beer list entitled “food we are legally required to offer.” 

It includes chips and salsa for the exorbitant sum of $20, and reads: “yes, we are under actual legal obligation to offer something (and food from Proper Burger Co doesn’t count) so here we are, technically doing the thing.” There’s another listing as well: Maruchan Instant Lunch for $15. “Guess we’re also supposed to have more than one option,” it reads. “Chicken flavor.”

Will The Liquor Laws Ever Change?

Even some of the more troublesome laws have hope of lifting. Several breweries mentioned the love-it-or-hate-it “3.2 law” requiring beers to be 3.2 percent alcohol by weight if sold on tap or in grocery stores. I say love it because my husband is one of the select few who loves stopping at the brewery after a mountain bike ride, drinking a couple of beers, and then getting back on the trail. The lower alcohol percentage, he says, makes every beer a “session” and keeps him from making a whole night of it.

Even the breweries themselves can be into it. Though many opt for a heavy bottle count in order to sell high point beers, Fisher Brewing Co. still focuses on draft. “We focus on fresh draft beer and a wide variety of it,” says Tim Dwier, one of the four co-owners of Fisher Brewing Co. “Session beers mean people can stay here, trying something they might not be able to try elsewhere, while being able to have multiple beers without getting schnockered. But don’t get me wrong—we’d love to make a real IPA. It’s the most popular beer in the world and we can’t even make it because of the liquor laws.”

There are rumors that the 3.2 law might be going away. Some brewers tell me it might even be ending next year. But I’m skeptical, so I decide to call the DABC myself. It’s not true, they tell me; what the hopeful brewers are referring to is the fact that Oklahoma recently overturned their 3.2 law. In the process, Anheuser-Busch announced that it didn’t make sense for the company to continue producing 3.2 beer for just a small handful of states. “Given this reality, we are beginning a process to evaluate our 3.2 percent ABW beer portfolio,” said the company in a statement at the time, “including considering package reductions up to 40 percent of those currently offered to Utah consumers.”

Nothing has happened yet, but speculation among brewers is that if Budweiser stops selling 3.2 beers, legislatures in Utah might be forced to make a change. Whether they will or they won’t remains to be seen.

Bootleggers, Sugar House Distillery

Continuing A Utah Legacy

Like legends, bottles of whiskey are passed down from generation to generation. And perhaps that is one of the more alluring aspects of the industry. To this day, whenever I have a glass of Pleiades XXVI from Thackrey & Company Winery, I’m reminded of my home in California, where my husband and I used to drink the wine on our front porch to celebrate big victories. And when I drink a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, it reminds me of my thirtieth birthday when I had my first glass.

That’s because taste—like smell—is part of the larger sense known as memory. And memory is exactly what a good drink taps us into. Old songs take us into reveries of our pasts, the smell of apple pie reminds us of a kindly grandmother, and a bottle of wine enjoyed at a wedding 20 years ago might still carry memories from that day. So, too, does the spirit of Utah live on in the spirits we drink, especially those that come with a history.

“”At some point, it’s going to pay off that we did it the hard way.”

-James Fowler | Owner | Sugarhouse Distillery

High West, for example, named their very first Utah-Distilled product Valley Tan, after the oat- and wheat-based whiskey popular with Mormon pioneers in the 1850’s. Fisher Brewing Co., a mainstay in Utah long before and even after Prohibition, was just reopened by the founder’s great-great-grandson after being closed for 50 years. “Our flagship beer is a historical recreation of what our pre-Prohibition pilsner must have been like.” Mr. Dwier says, “It’s the only beer we keep on tap at all times. We get a lot of old timers in here who drank it in the past. It’s the only beer they’ll touch.”

But if it’s history we’re looking for at the bottom of a glass, there’s no better way to get it than through the process of aging—and aging is a luxury in the liquor industry. Though many distilleries in Utah would love to sell a 100-year-old whiskey, they’d have to store a bottle of whiskey for 100 years to do so—and that’s no small endeavor. Yet, it’s just the sort of thing Mr. Fowler dreams about at night. There’s nothing he’d love more than to make a bottle of Sugarhouse Distillery whiskey that outlives him, that tells the story of the time in Utah’s history during which he lived, leaving his own stamp on Utah’s storied bootlegging culture.

“At some point, it’s going to pay off that we did it the hard way,” he says. “It may not be in my lifetime, and hopefully my kids won’t screw it up, but eventually it will pay off.”

Bootleggers, Sugar House Distillery

Elle is the editor-in-chief of Utah Business and a freelance writer for Forbes, The Muse, and The Startup. She is also a literary novelist and the author of a weekly newsletter called The Novelleist. Learn more at ellegriffin.com.