Anyone who's ever been on a cross-country road trip has experienced some of the confusion surrounding the US's highly varied liquor laws from state to state. In New York, you can get plastered until almost-dawn, while in neighboring Pennsylvania, it's near impossible to buy a couple of beers on a whim. In California, you can buy a fifth of tequila at your local crappy corner market, while just two states away in Washington, you'll have to hit a government-licensed liquor store or a massive supermarket to get your margarita-making on.
And then, things get even weirder. In Vermont, you can't purchase a second drink until you've finished your first, and—sorry, single ladies—in Massachusetts, you can't buy a whole bottle of wine if you're dining alone. And lord knows why in New Jersey, you're shit-outta-luck if you've gotten a DUI and want to apply for a customized license plate. Sorry—your personalization privileges have been revoked.
How is anyone supposed to keep any of this information straight, especially if they're a frequent traveler? Niki Ganong, author of The Field Guide to Drinking in America: A Traveler's Handbook to State Liquor Laws, is here to help. Her book is a veritable encyclopedia of all the can- and can't-dos from the breweries of the Pacific Northwest to the tiki bars of Florida and everywhere in between.
We caught up with Niki to learn more about the best and worst places in America to get a strong and decent cocktail, and the surprises she encountered while conducting field research.
MUNCHIES: Hi Niki! How did you come up with the idea to create this guide? Niki Ganong: My publisher and I are old friends. I guess I should preface this by saying I'm from Pennsylvania, which is a control state, my publisher is from Indiana, which is also a control state, and his wife is from West Virginia, another control state. Yet all three of these states deal with alcohol law very differently. I travel a lot, and so do my friends and publisher, and we always have these stories about what you have to do to get a drink on the road. And the more we talked about it, the more we realized that law is a reflection of the area. You can almost tell the history of the country through alcohol law. Originally, we just wanted something practical for people like ourselves who have been on the road and don't know where you need to go to have a cocktail or get a six-pack of beer.
How much did you travel while doing research for the book? I've been traveling all my life, around the country and around the world. when I was producing the book, I don't know how many states I visited, maybe ten or 15. Most of my traveling is done around festivals, beer festivals or food festivals, visiting breweries. I brought a lot of experience to the table. Many of the bars that you read about in the book, I've been there.
Of all of the places that you visited, which had your favorite drinking culture? You know, everybody's so different. Wisconsin is full of so many great breweries; it's hard not to love a place that incorporates drinking culture into their everyday life like Wisconsin. But New York is exciting and there's such a wide variety of places to go. DC has so many different ethnic neighborhoods, and a constantly changing population in that area. Florida is lawless and fun, you know what I mean? It's a big country and there's something to love almost anywhere, which is something I found out while researching. It's hard to pick. If I could pick one, I'd pick Oregon. We have everything here.
Which states, overall, are the most strict? Pennsylvania, for sure. Pennsylvania's really difficult because the state controls everything there. It's very difficult to buy spirits and beer, and wine and beer are not sold in grocery stores. Wine is sold in separate government stores, and there are only two ways to buy beer in Pennsylvania: buy a six-pack at a restaurant, or buy a case at a beer distributor. It makes independent brewing difficult, because people would want to taste something before they invest in a case of it, for example. You'll see the tried and true big brands there but not much innovation. And Utah, as you would expect. I haven't been there, but I've seen that gadget that goes on top, a regulated pour spout. And I don't know if you noticed this, but there are very few bars with discos or dance bars. There are lots of restaurants that can serve alcohol but there are very few places that have that cabaret license. And in restaurants, they can't make a cocktail in front of you. The law says that they any preparation of cocktails can't be visible to the public, so it's actually nicknamed the Zion Curtain. It's a wacky place, but other great things have come from there, like Epic Brewing. That sort of spirit of innovation is what you find everywhere. We can tell you the ins and outs, and what you can do for cheap to get around some of these laws.
On the flip side, what were the laws you discovered that you couldn't believe that they were legal? Well, the 24-hour sort of thing, to me, is surprising. That there are places like Atlantic City that can legally pour 24 hours a day. That, to me, is crazytown. Let's close down for a little bit and have some decency. Or the laws where you can pour shots directly into a person's mouth. I think a lot of things that are associated with college drinking—those are the things I find distasteful. The drive-thru liquor store thing, in Louisiana, is kind of crazy, and the loophole, where you can literally get a daiquiri for the road. Think of a cup that you'd get from a fast-food place, but styrofoam. They put the lid on and tape the straw to the side, and that's considered a closed container. The loophole is the hole, but they were able to get around it by using tape to make it a "closed container."
But that's what happens when you're from a place. You get used to how it's done where you're from, or a place where you've lived. But our book is for people who are visiting there, driving through, going on a camping trip or whatever. We try to give advice like a local.
Another thing you mention in the book is regional cocktails, things that are popular in one small area of the country and nowhere else. There are some delicious ones, like the Sazerac in New Orleans. That is a delicious cocktail. But then there are some ones like the Burnt Trailer, which is Moxie soda and Allen's coffee brandy, and that's from Maine, and people actually drink. I think the most disgusting thing, though, is Malört. Have you had Malört? Start Googling for videos of "Malört face." In Illinois and Wisconsin and Michigan, that whole area of people drinks Malört as some kind of rite of passage. It's quite nasty. It tastes medicinal…. like [a more] disgusting Fernet. It's an acquired taste, to be sure.
Did you come across a lot of really stupid, nonsensical laws? Any favorites? There are the ridiculous ones that are impractical, like you can't feed a moose beer in Alaska, and don't ride a horse drunk in Denver. There are those kinds of laws that are remnants of another time, but they're not really practical. Our book really deals with practical information. The goofy Buzzfeed type lists out there, many of those are not true. The laws have already been repealed and now they're just internet flotsam and jetsam. We mention some of the strange, peculiar ones comically, but our book is really meant to be helpful.
The cocktail writer David Wondrich tweeted about the book, that it's useful. He said other wonderful things, but I was like, Wow, David Wondrich said I'm useful. To me, that's the highest compliment that can be paid.
Thanks for talking with us.