Utah drinking laws have become a bit of an urban legend. There is a lot of incorrect information out there concerning these laws. I will admit that some of Utah's drinking laws are a bit quirky, but finding a cocktail or a beer in Utah is seldom a problem.
I have friends who won't even consider skiing Utah, as they think it's a dry state and they won't be able to find a beer or a glass of wine at lunch. I feel sorry for these guys, as they are dead wrong and are missing some of the best skiing in the country.
So, okay, the two big lobbies in Utah are the Mormon church and the tourism industry (skiing). Sometimes these two groups are on the same side and sometimes they butt heads. They seem to have worked out some interesting compromises when it comes to Utah's liquor laws.
The laws may be enforced differntly in places like Provo vs a ski town like Park City. In places like Park City the servers come from all over the word and just grin and bear some of the quirkier laws. You will get a wink and nod here regarding some of the laws.
I admit that when I first started coming to Utah, the drinking laws were a bit tighter. Most restaurants did not serve any liquor, and you had to run over to a state-run liquor store, buy an airline mini (one at a time), and then bring it back to the restaurant and buy a set-up. It was indeed a bit of a hassle!
During the build-up before the Olympics, Utah realized they would have guests from all over the globe and that they had to clean up their liquor laws. The French like their wine and the Germans, their beer!
First off, the drinking age in Utah is like most states--21 years old. Here are a few of the liquor laws that are a bit unique:
You will see the words "private club" thrown around a lot. These are just bars. In order to drink at a place that does not serve food, you must buy a membership and "join" the club. This all sounds a lot more complicated than it is. I think of it as a bar cover charge and it's a lot less mysterious. Membership ranges from $13 to $30 per year, or a temporary membership costs around $4 for three weeks. You buy them at the door, and it only takes a minute. You will get a cute little paper membership card stating you are a member of the private club in good standing. There are a few exceptions. For instance, the lounges at Salt Lake City Airport don't require memberships, and you can walk in and order a cocktail like most other places in the world.
Most resturants have a liquor license and serve cocktails. However, by law, you MUST order food with your drinks here. It is against the law to come in and order a cocktail and leave or just order a basket of chips and salsa. The server can demand that you order a meal, and if you refuse, you can actually be arrested. I doubt that many arrests are made with this law, but it is on the books.
Also, you are never allowed to have more than one drink in front of you at a time. Utah does not have two-for-one happy hours. You are required by law to just order one drink at a time, then drink it, and then order the next one. Also, no sending drinks to a person who already has one! However, it's not against the law to order a pitcher of sangria or margaritas at the table--go figure.
Also, a server may not suggest a cocktail to you. You must ask for it. A server can say, "Can I start you out with anything?" but never, "Would you care for a cocktail?" I have seen this law broken many times at ski resorts. Again, you probably won't hear any lawbreakers pushing drinks in Provo, but you probably will be "illegally" offered a drink by a server in Park City! Also, thankfully, smoking is illegal in all Utah restaurants.
Private liquor stores are illegal in Utah. All liquor stores are owned and operated by the state. You will find a few in each town. Park City has two. These stores are plain, brightly lit, do not have promotions, and look pretty sterile. There are seldom deals at these stores, but you can find most liquor.
I have to give Utah credit. The liquor stores must be a great source of revenue for the state. They can charge pretty much what they want with no competition, and they always have a willing audience. I have seldom been to one of these stores where there has not been a line at the register.
I have a friend who is married to a girl from Utah. They are not heavy drinkers, but when they go home, he always brings a bottle of his favorite scotch with him. He states that he does not like to pay the Utah prices, and when and if it's sold out, you have no other options. I know several folks who ski Utah and always bring their favorite liquor with them.
Beer Pubs and Beer Bars
These are 3.2 bars and can be found all over ski resorts. You don't need a membership, and you can find a beer almost anywhere at any ski resort in Utah. Even the cafeteria at Park City sells 3.2 beer. It's never a problem.
Another unique liquor law: you cannot bring a beer-filled cooler to a public place, like a golf course or a public park.
Just a word of warning. Park City is over 5,000 feet above sea level, and you feel a cocktail a lot quicker up here. Also, Utah does not kid around with DUI laws. You can expect automatic confiscation of your drivers license, your car impounded, and criminal charges lodged against you. They also take underaged drinking seriously here. Anyone under 21 who is caught drinking will have their driver's license revoked until their 21st birthday.
So you can find a cocktail or beer easily in Utah. You just have buy a membership, order a meal, or buy your bottle of gin from the state. It's all pretty simple, and a lot of the mystery is gone.