Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Legally drunk: A look at the curious laws that govern how we guzzle


It's funny: nationally, Massachusetts has a reputation of being the bluest of "blue states," thanks to our progressive politics. But not a single local has grown up here without encountering "blue laws," antiquated regulations (often related to alcohol) that are anything but liberal - more like straight out of our buttoned-up, buckle-shoed Puritan past. The origin of the colorful term is subject to speculation: it's a reference to either an old definition of "blue" (which meant "rigidly moral" during Colonial times), the color of the paper that legal documents were once printed on, or the color of everyone's balls at the time, since these folks were definitely as repressed in the bedroom as they were at the bar. 

Such laws are hardly ancient history, as anyone who has tried to buy booze before noon on Sunday (you know, the day when God pays attention), attempted to restock during a Memorial Day barbecue, or run out of wine during Thanksgiving dinner can attest. But there are even less obvious and more egregious prohibitions on the books that are a pain in our collective alcohol-loving ass. So I asked a few sin purveyors for their thoughts on Massachusetts's most annoying, curious, or downright weird laws regarding the sale of alcohol - laws that can impact exactly what, how, and when we drink in unexpected ways.  

TJ Douglas of local wine store The Urban Grape (7 Boylston Street, Chestnut Hill, 617.232.4831) says most of the weird laws he's encountered came up during his years working in restaurants and bars around the city. But there are a few curious laws he has to deal with as the owner of a retail store, aka an off-premises license holder. In a retail store, all alcohol must have a price tag on it if it's within a customer's reach, Douglas says. That's not the case if it's behind the counter though. And once it's been purchased, alcohol must be carried out in a package or box. "You can carry out a six-pack, but a bottle of pinot grigio has to be bagged. I don't know if it's a concealed-weapon kind of strategy," he jokes. "You can have your gun, but you can't hide it?"

In bars and restaurants, known as on-premises sites in legalese, things get a lot weirder - and the laws can be a bit of a buzzkill, both literally and figuratively. No fun, reads one law. Well, basically. Here's the real language: "No licensee or employee or agent of a licensee shall encourage or permit, on the licensed premises, any game or contest which involves drinking or the awarding of drinks as prizes." 


Douglas offers a translation: "So you can't have shot contests or throw a bull's-eye and get free drinks. You can't sponsor it, and customers can't do it." Of course, I do seem to recall going to trivia nights where the prize was a free pitcher of beer for the table. That's one of the interesting aspects of these laws: many of them are so silly that they aren't enforced. And many places may not even realize they exist, so they go unobserved.

One law that's familiar to all licensees is the prohibition against discounting liquor, aka the no-happy-hour rule or the "Everyone's friends from New York City constantly bitch about this one" rule. It's illegal to "sell, offer to sell, or deliver to any person or group of persons any drinks at a price less than the price regularly charged for such drinks during the same calendar week, except at private functions not open to the public." Massachusetts bars deal with this limitation by discounting food during traditional happy-hour hours, but let's be honest: 50 percent off jalapeno poppers is a lot less enticing than $2 drink specials. Maybe that's why we're all so much fatter up here than the people in NYC? Thanks a lot, Puritans. 

Joe O'Connor, bar manager for Red Lantern (39 Stanhope Street, Boston, 617.262.3900) as well as Shrine at Foxwoods, says they have their own set of weird laws to deal with in Connecticut, but drink-special prohibitions aren't among them. "As far as drink specials go, [in Connecticut] it's a free-for-all. We do $5 cocktails on industry night at Shrine Tuesdays, and it goes over well. We get 600 or 700 people through the door." Wow, you think? "I'd like to be able to do something like that on industry night here, or something where we feature house drinks for $5 one night," he says. 

O'Connor adds, "It's tough because you really want to be able to promote drink specials, be affordable and attractive, especially on slow nights, to attract guests to get there. An easy way to do that would be to run specials on Mondays from five to nine. But being locked in to having to keep the same prices, it's not really doable." 


Coming from a lawless Old West-esque town like New York City to our little house on the prairie was likewise a big shock for Jon Parsons, beverage director at Sam's (60 Northern Avenue, Boston, 617.295.0191). "Opening up a restaurant, being curious, and wanting to do everything by the books, I looked up these laws and was blown away by how much more strict it is," he says. "I worked at place that sold $1 32-ounce pitchers in slow times in the afternoon. That wouldn't fly here." Speaking of pitchers, state law also says that you can only serve a pitcher of a malt beverage or mixed drink to two or more people, but the definition of a pitcher isn't stated. I hereby dub a pitcher to be 1000 ounces. 

Strike that, actually - the cost would probably be prohibitive. As Parsons points out, you can't increase the amount of alcohol in a drink without proportionally increasing the price. That also means that if a customer wants more liquor in a drink (say, she thinks it tastes weak or the martini looks short), you must charge her extra. What's more, a customer can't be served more than two drinks at a time - so you may get to grab a drink for you and your buddy, but the rest of your crew will have to belly up to the bar themselves. 

Elsewhere on the books are restrictions on giving away unlimited amounts of alcohol. In other words, open bars don't exist. Licensees aren't allowed to "sell, offer to sell, or deliver to any person an unlimited number of drinks during any set period of time for a fixed price . . ." the law reads. Then what about all those fancy opening parties that you and your friends attend to get wasted on free-flowing champagne, huh? Explain that, lawman. 

There's a caveat in the rule, you see, which says ". . . except at private functions not open to the public." And now you know why you have to RSVP and get your name checked off by a bored marketing intern every time you go to one of those things. 

Technically, bottle service doesn't exist here either, explains George Aboujaoude, owner of Bijou (51 Stuart Street, Boston, 617.357.4565) and Cafeteria (279a Newbury Street, Boston, 617.536.2233). Our high rollers have to content themselves with table service. "Basically, you have to have your own bartender at your table, a server standing there pouring the alcohol. You're not allowed to pour your own. And you're not really buying the bottle; you're only charged for the drinks you consume." Aboujaoude says it's all about preventing over-serving - a concern that's evidently a lot less pressing in New York, Miami, and Las Vegas. 

People who come from those cities are often flabbergasted by the lack of bottle service, Aboujaoude explains. "They don't know why they can't get the bottle. They want to be able to pour their own bottle." 

Maybe someday, bros and lady bros. "I think they're slowly loosening up the old puritan laws that are already outdated here in Boston, even though we're a conservative state. Every 200 years, they might let something go," Aboujaoude says.

In fact, a few years back, the state did just that, relaxing the rule against taking a partially consumed bottle of wine home from a restaurant. Now you can doggie bag your Bordeaux, but only if you've officially eaten a meal, which Massachusetts law precisely defines as "a diversified selection of food which ordinarily is classified as an ‘entrée' or ‘main course' which ordinarily cannot be consumed without the use of tableware and which cannot be conveniently consumed while standing or walking." (Talk about a mouthful.) And to prove your meal passed muster, the restaurant has to affix your receipt to the sealed bag containing your single resealed bottle. Whew. 

That's not the only red tape related to bringing booze outside a restaurant's four walls. One Boston ordinance reads, "Outdoor cafés must serve dinners. No one shall be seated in an outdoor café for the sole purpose of drinking alcohol." Catch that, patio lovers? "So this says if you have a drink, you have to have a meal and be sitting at a table," Douglas explains. "I ran a restaurant with a huge patio on Newbury Street for three years. How everyone got by was putting bread and olive oil on table, but you also had to have tableware and a place setting; then everyone can drink." 

Particular neighborhood associations may push for even stricter guidelines: in some snootier 'hoods, you can't even go inside a restaurant and sit at a table just to have a drink. "On Beacon Hill, you have to eat in order to drink," Douglas says. "I think it's the residents that monitor it. They've been known to call people out on it if they walk in and see people just drinking." Total narcs. Of course, other establishments take a more lax approach - hence why you'll see some dive bars getting around food-service requirements by keeping a bag of Cheez-Its within arm's reach in an ancient vending machine. 

Things could be a lot worse than they are in Boston, I suppose. The state still has more than a few completely dry towns where you can't purchase alcohol of any kind, be it in a store or a bar. And other cities have much more complicated restrictions on where, when, and from whom alcohol can be sold. Chef-owner Tony Bettencourt of 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar (62 Wharf Street, Salem, 978.744.0062) says he's been struggling since his spot opened to deal with a seasonal license that prohibits his staff from selling liquor during the winter off-season. 

While they have a year-round beer, wine, and cordials license, come January 15, they have to put away the hard stuff until April 1. They've petitioned the city to lobby the state on their behalf for a full-year license, but the red tape involved in such decisions makes it seem like cities are authorizing the production of nuclear missiles made of heroin in their elementary schools. 

"It does seem kind of weird and arbitrary," Bettencourt says. "Whenever alcohol is involved, I always point to the Puritan ancestors." (That's easy to do in Salem, where one of their houses might still stand next door.) 

"Look how long it took for alcohol to be sold on Sundays in Massachusetts. I mean, we're all adults here," Bettencourt continues. "With our seasonal liquor license, it's 10 weeks, the deepest, darkest months of the winter. Are we more susceptible to sins in the winter? I don't get it. Those things seem at least incredibly old-fashioned, and it does affect us in those 10 weeks; we do lose a significant amount of money. I know this happens on the Cape too, but on the Cape the seasonal business is so much better, so a restaurant with a seasonal license will close. There isn't as much of a call for a business to stay open year round. Salem is in the middle - not Boston, but not quite as desolate in winter as the Cape may be." 

Boston can be pretty desolate for a drinker too. Especially if you're trying to order a pitcher solo at 9 a.m. on a holiday Sunday for a discount. Then it's a really lonely place.

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