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How Salt Lake City’s Quirky Liquor Laws Lead to Unique Cocktail Menus

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The surprising pros and cons of Utah's restrictive laws.

David Newkirk/courtesy Copper Common

Why would the owner of a popular restaurant that made the 2012 Bon Appetit Top 50 decide to close it just a year-and-a-half later? In the case of Ryan Lowder and Plum Alley, the answer lies in three familiar words: location, location, location. No, not the actual spot — a prominent corner next to Lowder's flagship establishment, the Copper Onion — but, rather, the fact that it's in Salt Lake City. Sixty-two percent of Utah's residents are members of the teetotaling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the will of that majority exerts itself repeatedly through the state's alcoholic beverage statutes.

Although strides have been made recently, Utah still has some of the country's quirkiest and most restrictive regulations, including its infamous (if perhaps overblown) restriction on beers that are more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight. "Because we've got non-drinkers making all these laws, and then a healthy amount of them also involved in enforcement, there's not a lot of consistency to the laws as they're actually enacted," says Lowder.

The story behind Plum Alley's closing is actually the story of Plum Alley's opening. Lowder's dream for the space was a craft cocktail bar: a place for Copper Onion guests to have a drink while waiting for a table, or for just anyone to have a drink, period, without being required to get food. But halfway through construction, Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control announced that they were out of "club licenses," full-service licenses which are based on population estimates (there's one for every 7,280 residents, which adds up to a current total of 382 for the entire state). So, as Lowder told Eater in early 2013, he turned the space into an Asian-influenced restaurant.

"Utah’s limits on alcohol put into cocktails makes it difficult to make them of satisfying quality."

With a restaurant license, Plum Alley could still serve liquor, beer, and wine, but only if 70 percent of its revenue came from food, and only with the only-in-Utah restriction known as "the Zion Curtain," which is a sort of dressing screen for alcoholic beverages. All restaurant bartenders are required to keep and make the drinks behind this partition, lest sober (or underage) customers should accidentally catch a glimpse of rye.

But despite Plum Alley's local popularity and BA nod, Lowder and his staff never forgot their original concept. When a full-service club license became available, they decided Plum Alley would be no more (it may eventually return at another location). In its place came Copper Common, which opened in March of 2014. The debut of Copper Common — and the likes of Bar-X (part-owned by Modern Family actor Ty Burrell and his brother Duncan), Finca, and the Rest — have given Salt Lake a craft cocktail scene just like any other major city. But here are some of the ways in which cocktails in Utah are unlike cocktails anywhere else:

You Are The 1.5%

Whether it's served neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, hard liquor is restricted to a 1.5-ounce serving. But in a cocktail, you can use 2.5 ounces of spirit in total, as long as the other ounce comes from a secondary spirit. "The one thing I always try to explain to our guests is, 'If you're looking for a stiff drink, you need to go after a cocktail, not just something neat to sip on,'" says Copper Common beverage director/bar manager Maureen Segrave-Daly. "I can't pour you two-and-half ounces of bourbon, but I can make you a bourbon cocktail with an ounce and a half of bourbon and an ounce of something else."

Theoretically, you can order an ounce-and-a-half of bourbon with a one-ounce chase of something else. You just can't have two servings of the same spirit, and the 2.5 ounce limit means there's no way to serve a "double" even if you could. "What's more difficult than anything else," says Segrave-Daly, "is explaining to someone why he can't get a double scotch, even though the person next to him has a scotch cocktail that's twice the size of a neat scotch."

On top of that, the state will not let you have two drinks in front of you if they have the same base spirit or add up to more than 2.5 ounces. Legally speaking, a nearly finished drink still counts as the full, original amount of liquor, so at Copper Common, they will clear off your first drink before pouring you another.

"We’ve have to change a lot of recipes, tweak them to fall within the laws."

Recipes Must Be Adjusted

"Utah's limits on alcohol put into cocktails makes it difficult to make them of satisfying quality," says Glen Warchol, who, as the managing editor of Salt Lake magazine, knows this as both a customer and a journalist who regularly writes about the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. "A classic margarita is usually made with two to three shots of tequila, not to mention orange liqueur with a shot of fresh lime juice — way over the line," Warchol says. "And a legal-martini looks like a splash of gin in the bottom of your glass."

When it comes to a margarita, that's a slight exaggeration: Portland, Oregon-based bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler's recipe, for instance, calls for two ounces of tequila and an ounce of triple sec, so to make it Utah-legal, you'd just have cut 25 percent of the tequila and adjust the rest accordingly. "You can still make your cocktail recipes with the right proportion, they're just going to be a little bit smaller than they are other places in the country," Segrave-Daly says.

But sometimes bigger changes must be made. "We've had to change a lot of recipes, tweak them to fall within the laws," says Segrave-Daly. "A lot of the cocktails that are on our list are things that our bartenders have played around with at home." That bartender might bring in something using Cointreau ("which a lot of us prefer," says Segrave-Daly), but Cointreau is 80 proof, whereas many triple secs are less than 50. To fit the requirements, that swap might be made. "Of course, it's going to change the flavor of the drink a little bit as well."

Amaro, vermouth, and liqueurs are also key ingredients, as cocktails can also use another 2.5 ounces of any beverage that is less than 20 perfect alcohol (40 proof), for a total of five ounces. "We utilize fortified wines a lot, since they're typically under 20 percent, and can bulk up the drink a little bit," says Segrave-Daly.

Special Orders

Got a favorite small-batch bourbon or obscure liqueur? Both bar managers and private citizens have to buy their liquor through the state, and, as you might expect from a state run by people who consider alcohol a vice rather than an ingredient, they aren't always getting the best stuff"That is one of the most tedious processes to deal with in this state," Segrave-Daly says. "If it's a pretty popular and limited product, some people just won't ship here, because it's not worth their time."

Special orders are only available by the case (even as an individual consumer), so Copper Common has a huge, climate-controlled inventory room enabling them to stock up on more than 50 special-order whiskeys, digestifs, and aperitifs, and nearly 400 cases of special-order wine and liquor in total. That also allows more time to pass between the hassle of new special-orders. "We probably sit on four times more booze and wine than most places," Lowder says.

Segrave-Daly says that for years, Monte Alban was the only mezcal the state carried, so everything else was a special order. Michter's Whiskey took almost 18 months to get. "I ordered that when we were Plum Alley and it showed up when we were Copper Common," she says.

"I’ve found that we make a more consistent Manhattan than most places I’ve been outside of the state."

Consistent Quality and Consistent Revenue

For a bar owner, the fact that the drinks must be carefully metered to avoid DABC punishment (over-pouring, free-pouring, or having too many drinks in front of a patron are all considered "serious" violations, in the same category as serving minors) means liquor doesn't disappear as easily from a restaurant's bottom line. "You don't have that closing bartender who's pouring doubles for his friends."

It also means more easily repeatable recipes, which can equal better drinks. "From my experience working in New York, a lot of bartenders, when they can free-pour, and they get busy, they just start going for it, and you get a wildly different product every time," Lowder says. "I've found that we make a more consistent Manhattan than most places I've been outside of the state."