Las Vegans are used to getting it any time, any place (every place!), in any combination, at every volume and at any hour: booze. But at the Sundance Film Festival, when the hard-partying elite of New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas don goofy hats and descend upon poor little Park City, Utah, in droves, local bartenders must buck up against the tidal wave of drinkers without Utah-drinkin’ savvy.
Friday, January 16, 9:30 p.m. MDT
“I’ll have a Negroni, please, on the rocks.” The bartender shakes her big blonde hair, “I can’t.” I anticipated this. At three ounces, the cocktail would go over Utah’s 2.5 oz max for any one mixed drink. But apparently that’s not the issue. “Well, do you have gin?” Yes. “Sweet vermouth?” Yes. “Campari??” Yes. “Then what?!” She says I can have either the Campari or the gin but not both. I roll my eyes as nicely as I can and sub in soda for the gin. One Americano later we’re seated for dinner but shortly thereafter I’m tucking into an entire bottle of Pinot Noir myself. Typical Utah liquor law tomfoolery.
Plainly stated, Utah’s liquor laws make about as much sense as New Math and are about as useful; these so-called Chug Laws make you drink more, faster. And they are changed, I’m told, every few years so as to keep the coffers flush with fines. Every venue seems to cling to whatever set of laws it liked best and pray that by religiously adhering to that version, it’ll survive an audit.
At Park City’s largest nightclub, Harry-O’s, marketing/VIP services manager Dustin Esson and GM Seth Hill take me through the business. To get into a bar or club you must be a “member,” even if only temporarily. These private club memberships function like a cover charge but extend (during non-Sundance weeks) for 2-3 weeks and can include your entire group. You might have to sign a book or card after paying, and every once in a while you may hear, “Would anyone be willing to sponsor this lady?” from the doorman. Make nice—say yes.
But, says Esson, the membership scenario might be short-lived. “We’ve had some positive change,” he says. With nearby Salt Lake City undergoing a major facelift and reorganization, the local legislature is beginning to talk about updating the liquor laws. Until just six months ago, you could only have one ounce of the same liquor in a glass at any one time. Imagine the martinis!
There is always a Plan B. “The gray area was the little sidecar.” In a separate glass, the bartender would give you another ounce of spirit. But restaurants can only serve one drink at a time—no sidecar. So, driven by the that industry, the sidecar was abolished, and you are now allowed 2.5 ounces of combined alcohol in front of you via no more than 1.5 ounces of base spirit (served on the Berg liquor-control system) and other alcoholic mixers or flavorings. Wha—? So where’s my Negroni?!
The New New Math: Order a double Jack and Coke, and you will likely receive one ounce of Jack with Coke accompanied by a one-ounce shot of Jack with a piece of ice or splash of Coke (remember, the sidecar was abolished, so the ice or splash makes this a “mixed drink”!). At restaurants it’s still one drink at a time, and the server cannot put your next drink down until you’ve finished the previous one—hence, the Chug Laws.
But wait—there’s more. Wine comes in five-ounce doses, though you can still buy bottles for the table. Note that your beer has only 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, not volume (“near beer”), unless you buy it at a state liquor store or club where the real deal is heavily marked up. Pitchers are only for groups of two and above. Last call comes at 1 a.m., at which time you must have your final drink in front of you; you have until 2 a.m. to down it. After that, there are two mythical stores in Park City that supposedly sell alcohol after hours. And yes, they are closed on Sundays.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. Arriving at an afterhours, I sipped a fresh vodka and soda at 2:01 a.m., drank on a dance floor (illegal), danced after 2 a.m. (illegal) and was handed a beer somewhere around 3, while overhead, a full bottle of sake passed from stranger to stranger. How is such fun even possible in the Chug Law state? Why, Sundance, of course! The festival’s private parties—held everywhere from converted law offices to bought-out restaurants—are yet another gray area, bending the already ridiculous rules to the point of absurdity. So are grocery stores, which sell beer on Sunday. Ironically, just about the only law strictly adhered to, thanks to the Californians, is the ban on smoking anywhere indoors.
The many shades of grey area aside, peripheral factors also come into play, like geography. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, really, a little dab’ll do ya. A heady buzz can easily be achieved thanks to a slight change in oxygen levels, which us lowlanders (Vegas: 2,001 feet) will keenly feel. Dehydration is a factor too, as is temperature.
But the real shocker for Las Vegans is the Utah bottle service. With the exception of wine and champagne, there is none. So the clubs sell real estate instead. What?! No bottle service?! It’s enough to make a Las Vegan feel like a fish out of vodka.