Friday, 18 March 2011

Let me through—I'm a state-registered connoisseur!

Montana: a not-insignificant chunk of America

I had lunch with a friend the other day, an urbane American (“lush” is the word he uses) whose home state is actually Montana, a place he depicts as unreconstructed cowboy country, where they still shoot Marlboro advertisements (and presumably anyone with long hair). Getting a decent drink there is quite a test of a gentleman’s initiative and endurance. It is by no means the most restrictive state but to this day “hard liquor” can only be purchased in state-run dispensaries—which I imagine as grey concrete compounds with grilles behind which mirthless operatives relinquish dark bottles with a skull and crossbones on them. To get to the grille you are probably made to run the gauntlet through a gang of chastising priests and doe-eyed orphans of terminal alcoholics, just to check you really want to go through with this.*

I'm a bit disappointed by the form you have to fill in.
It looks like a secretary just knocked it up in Word
in her lunch hour.
Alcohol licences for bars and restaurants are, by and large, in fixed supply. The state controls things “for the protection of the welfare, health, peace, morals and safety of the people” and there is a distinct official notion of how many watering holes are “right” for any given community—about one per 1,500 people according to the rules drawn up in 1947. Establishments lucky enough to have a licence seem free to sell them on, so you get this strange situation where a start-up restaurant wanting to sell wine may have to pay almost a million dollars to buy a licence on the open market.

What if you want to order drink from the supplier and have it sent to your home? If it’s a Montana brewery or winery they can if they are licensed to do so—but what if they are from Outside the State, where folk are all wizards, whores and murderers? There is a way. The elders do recognise that not everyone who wants to bring alcohol into their state is necessarily a flame-eyed degenerate. Some of them are proper aesthetes. And to this end you can actually be certified as a “connoisseur”, allowing you to bring up to 12 cases a year into the state for personal consumption.

It’s quite a bureaucratic burden: you must fill in a form and pay a fee (previously $50 but according to an email from the Montana Department of Revenue now just $25), stating whether you are a wine connoisseur or beer connoisseur.** If—hold on to your stetsons—you want to convince the state that you are a connoisseur of both (and not just an amoral rakehell who drinks whatever’s in front of him) you can apply for a “combo” licence, though that’ll cost you twice as much. These licences must be renewed every year. You then have to send a copy of your licence to the out-of-state winery or brewery—themselves licensed by Montana—who must keep it on file and dispatch your plonk with a “distinctive address label” on it, presumably so that UPS functionaries know to wear gloves and treat you with contempt. Moreover, you must keep accounts of all this and make tax declarations twice a year, paying the tax on your alcohol habit (13.8–16% of the retail price).

This is it. I can just imagine my name on this form…
If anyone is wondering what to get me for Christmas, get me registered by the State of Montana as a connoisseur—it’s the kind of official endorsement I need right now. I fondly imagined that you got a card you can carry around in your wallet and flash at checkpoints, but the Montana Department of Revenue have kindly sent me a sample and it doesn’t have quite the bureaucratic heft I was hoping for—no multi-coloured scrollwork, no hologram, not even a mystical pyramid with an eye on it. (You do get the administrator's autograph, which is nice.)

According to the latest figures just 153 people out of the million who live in Montana have applied for wine licences—and only four polymaths have sought and won the right to call themselves connoisseurs of both beer and wine. They should form a club, like those clubs for people who have survived heart transplants of been shot down by the Luftwaffe.

In fairness, cross-state direct shipment is a headache all over the country. Thirteen states have reciprocal arrangements allowing it; Alaska allows it up to a “reasonable” amount, which it doesn’t define. But confronted by the multifarious bureaucracy, many wineries just decline to ship across state borders.

Now, if I were living in Maryland I’d be screwed: drinks writers must be certified as “experts” by the state before they can receive product samples, and even then you’re limited to three bottles per brand.

Here are my favourite American licensing laws, courtesy of bartending maven Miss Charming (I haven't checked any of this, I'm afraid. What do you think I am, a journalist?):

• In Iowa it’s illegal to run a tab.

• In Arkansas credit cards are banned in liquor stores and wine shops. In New York, you can use a credit card to buy wine, but only in person. In Alabama, it's illegal to buy any alcoholic beverages by telephone, fax or e-mail.

• An award-winning adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood was banned from a reading list by a school board in Culver City, California, because the heroine includes a bottle of wine in the basket she brought to her grandmother. The entire Encyclopaedia Britannica is banned in Texas because it contains a recipe for making beer.

• It’s illegal to drink on a plane when flying over any dry parts of Kansas.

• In Kentucky you can be jailed for five years for sending a bottle of beer, wine or spirits as a gift to a friend.

• In California alcohol producers can’t list the names of retailers or restaurants that sell their products. In West Virginia, bars can advertise alcohol prices, but not brand names. In Louisiana they mustn’t display brand names that can be seen from outside the building. 

• In Utah wine used in tastings must not be swallowed. Full alcohol service is available only in private clubs or a limited number of restaurants that aren’t allowed to mention that it’s available.

• In Missouri if you’re under the age of 21 and you take out household rubbish containing an empty booze bottle or beer can you can be charged with illegal possession of alcohol.

• Nebraska has a law prohibiting bars from selling beer unless they are simultaneously brewing a kettle of soup. In North Dakota, on the other hand, it’s illegal to serve beer and pretzels at the same time.

• Mississippi didn’t repeal Prohibition until 1966.

• Texas state law prohibits taking more than three sips of beer at a time while standing.

• In Saskatchewan, Canada, it's illegal to drink alcohol while watching exotic dancers.

• In the 1940s California law made it illegal to serve alcohol to a homosexual. (How were bartenders supposed to tell? Did you have to be a state-registered homosexual?)

* Years ago a friend of mine worked for Threshers. He described how the firm's other chain, Wine Rack, was their more "high-end" sister. It got me speculating about perhaps having a more low-end brand too, called something like Booze Point, that just sold beer and alcopops. (Actually there was a branch of Victoria Wine near me—now abandoned—that was just like this. They did sell some wine, in one corner, but even their window display consisted of artfully displayed cans of lager.) Right at the bottom you could have Grog Nozzle, a chain of booths where you insert a coin then put your lips around a brass pipe and get ready to swallow. Which in fact is not so dissimilar to the legend of how Old Tom gin got its name—one revenue man was allegedly selling gin on the sly, and on the outside of his house was a figure of a black cat. You put a coin in its mouth and gin was dispensed.
** Actually I've just learned that they seem to have discontinued the beer-only licence, though they didn't say why. No call for it? Breweries not willing to go through the hassle?


  1. Unfortunately, the true reason behind Montana's bizarre rules regarding the connoisseur licence is not to protect the good, kind, gentle people of Montana from those predatory out-of-state "foreigners", it is to protect the profits of the Montana state liquor distributors (who I imagine make sizeable contributions to the election campaigns of our fine Montana State legislators). And, the description you gave of the "state liquor stores" is eerily accurate (have you perhaps been visiting our lovely Big Sky Country?). They are absolutely soulless places, with an alcohol selection similar to what I imagine the former citizens of the USSR used to enjoy. Most grievous is the total lack of any decent Port. Montanans must made do with a vile "Port" from New York State that tastes like a tarted-up ripple. Uggg, I shudder at the thought.


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