Yesterday Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 327, authorizing bars and restaurants to sell cocktails to-go, effective immediately. The legislation will remain active until businesses can safely seat 60% of capacity. In the meantime, they’ll be able to serve sealed containers of mixed drinks in sizes of 4 to 64 ounces, seven days a week until 11 p.m.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) now counts 33 states—along with the District of Columbia—that temporarily allow on-premise sales of either to-go drinks, bottled spirits, or both. “Pennsylvania now joins the majority of states that are permitting spirits and cocktails to-go as an economic lifeline for struggling hospitality businesses that are barely hanging on,” said Chris Swonger, president and CEO of the spirit industry’s largest lobbying group.
“Based on the positive feedback from consumers, restaurants and bars, many state leaders are looking to extend these policies or make them permanent as they slowly reopen,” he added. “We are working with states on the best way to adopt cocktail to-go measures with appropriate responsibility standards included such as sealed containers.”
If you read the local news in Pennsylvania today many of the headlines point to the governor’s instrumental role in pushing through this much-needed relief measure. Indeed, it creates a critical revenue stream for many small businesses across the commonwealth. But those that have been closely following developments in the Keystone State are hesitant to shower praise on its executor. There is strong evidence that yesterday’s bill passed despite Governor Wolf, not because of him.
“It passed both houses almost unanimously in a matter of days, but then it took almost a week for Governor Wolf to get around to signing it,” says Lew Bryson, spirits author and native Pennsylvanian. He laments a local system run by the PA Liquor Control Board, which was already showing obvious signs of ineptitude long before the pandemic hit. Over the past two months these pitfalls have been amplified in grand fashion.
“Governor Wolf decided to close the state stores on March 16th, the day before St. Patrick’s,” exclaims Bryson. “It led to tons of people crowding into the stores, standing in line — no masks, no distancing — for as much as an hour. And the PLCB’s reaction? ‘We just had our best sales day ever!!’”
Bryson sees the calamity as a breaking point; the moment when his fellow Pennsylvanians finally had had enough of the state-run system. In the wake of the shutdown, drinkers discovered their local distillers—who were able to sell direct to consumer—and stripped their shelves of vodka faster than they could replace it. Next, they spilled into neighboring states, causing runs on product in border towns from West Virginia to New Jersey.
Finally the PLCB rolled-out online sales and curbside pickups in early April, though these were not without significant setbacks. Yesterday’s legislation promises more of the same. Although there is no limit on how much a bar can sell, they aren’t allowed to mix wine with spirits. This technically includes vermouth. Which means that manhattans and martinis—two of the most classic cocktails on earth—are off-limits. You won’t have to order a meal with your road soda, but the bar must offer food as a prerequisite to selling takeaway tipples.
So there remains a lot of red tape. There is growing hope, however—not just here in Pennsylvania, but across the nation—that antiquated systems might finally crumble under the weight of modern challenges. For all the negative connotations swirling around ‘new normals’, the drinks industry could see something worthwhile come from theirs. Namely: the erosion of cumbersome distribution laws, the end of state-controlled liquor sales, and other assorted hang-ons from the Prohibition era.
“We don’t need to be ‘controlled’ anymore; we never really did,” Bryson points out. “Polling on the state stores has consistently shown a majority of Pennsylvania citizens want rid of them. And the legislature consistently ignores that. When this pandemic bullsh*t is over, I’m going to do my best to remind everyone how much the PLCB got things consistently wrong—stupid wrong!”
In the meantime, he can maybe find comfort—along with the other 8.8 million Pennsylvania residents of drinking age—in the embrace of a professionally prepared cocktail. Savor the small victories as they come.