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It’s Almost Impossible to Get Drunk in Public at Sundance

Every year, the Sundance Film Festival transforms the ski town of Park City, Utah into a star-studded party machine. Film festival visitors with imbibing on the mind have to deal with Utah’s teetotaling strict liquor laws. They're in for a sober...
Photo by Hannah Palmer Egan

For the majority of this week, I've been holed up in a mountainside dive in Park City, Utah, drinking Irish car bombs with total strangers. My mission is to get drunk at the Sundance Film Festival, which is closing this Sunday. I've been here since Wednesday night and have been fighting Utah's teetotaling, liquor laws since my arrival. In a state where the majority of Utah's legislators are Mormons and an estimated two-thirds of the residents belong to the Mormon faith, film festival visitors with imbibing on the mind are in for a sober awakening.


Every winter, the film festival's wild media feeding frenzy transforms Park City—typically percieved as a quaint haven for ski bums and hermits during the rest of the year—into a rakish, celebrity-studded mob scene swimming with bloodthirsty publicists, paparazzi, fur-shrouded sorority girls, and other unsavory characters crowding the sidewalks, vying for entry to the night's hottest list-only pop-up party. The only reasonable way to handle the thing is to stay as blasted as possible.

But in Utah, [state liquor laws](http:// are an infuriating quagmire marring the path to inebriation. Legislation limits most beer to 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (ABW), about 20 percent weaker than regular beer. Budweiser, PBR, and Michelob are all 3.9 percent (ABW), or five percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Microbrews are often higher. If you tend to get tipsy after four beers, you'll need five here in Park City.

Seeding and nurturing a buzz becomes an ongoing quest, but it's one worth pursuing with tweaker vitriol.

Most (but not all) Utah beer is 3.2 ABW. You can get the stronger stuff in one of Utah's 44 state-run liquor stores (there are only 44 in the whole state, and they keep banker's hours), or in smaller outlets like bars with a package license—but anything from a gas station, grocery store, or on draught at a bar is 3.2 percent ABW and not a drop stronger—not even the Guinness in your car bomb.

But there are a myriad of great ways to imbibe with purpose in the Beehive State. Park City's elevation hovers at around 7,000 feet above sea level. It's ringed by high peaks where the air is even thinner than within town. Anyone who's ever lived in or traveled to higher elevations will say that you get drunk faster in anoxic mountain air. Though the New York Times disputed this years back, heading for the hills is intoxicating in its own right.


Above, empty beers.

Earlier this week, I jumped on a gondola at the Canyons Resort and pounded as many Coronas as I could manage at the mid-mountain lodge. Mild drunkenness ensued—perhaps amplified by a shaggy, sweet-hearted ski instructor who serenaded me on his lunch break. Singer-songwriters have a way of making oneself drink faster.

Eventually, I stumbled back to town in search of whiskey. Drinking hard liquor is dreadful in Utah, where the laws requires honest, hardworking barkeeps to cap every bottle with these ridiculous little devices that measure exactly 1.5 ounces of liquor per pour, or one skimpy pour per drink. So I've been sticking to straight whiskey instead—tiny 1.5 ounce glasses of it—which are nice counterweights to the huge, 32 ounce beers I've also been pounding to stay ahead of beer bellied sleep. In Utah, laws make beers weak, but anyone can drink a pitcher to the face.

O'Shucks bar on Main Street serves beers in chalises as big as your head, which is what the locals drink. But finishing one is like a full-time job, and alternately chugging schwill and waiting in the bathroom line that separates you from every loo in festival city is no way to spend an afternoon, especially when I should be working on the more substantive work I came here to do. Still, it's a great home base for cheap, no BS boozing and a killer $5 burger. It's a lot of beer for minimal payoff, so it's best to keep the whiskey coming. And plenty of car bombs.

If this sounds like a lot of effort, and if corporate-booze-sponsored, open bar cast parties would feel like heroic relief, then fear not: Sundance pulls through in the end. At pop-ups along Main Street, barkeeps mix free specialty drinks in private, list-only rooms, because despite Utah's tendency to overreach when it comes to personal choices, parties closed to the public can provide free alcohol to guests with minimal oversight, which means that the drinks are strong, the ladies loose, and the dancing is for real, or at least as much as anywhere in Park City this week.

Sometimes, you just have to sell out to get what you really need. And now, with Sundance winding towards closing this weekend, I'm happy to be on the list, schwilling among the stars, which is exactly where—if you're at Sundance—is the only reasonable place to be.


Editors Note: The author's mention of "bars with a package license" should be clarified to reflect that while most Utah beer is 3.2 ABW, you can obtain higher ABW alcohol on draught at bars that posses a "club" license. Until 2009, people previously had to pay a fee to enter these establishments until they changed the law that year. Currently, one can purchase higher ABW beer and liquor from one of Utah's 44 state-run liquor stores, or at smaller shops with special permits that sell packaged liquor.