Bottoms Up in Mormon County

utah

Utah isn't exactly the first place that comes to mind if you're seeking a good drink.

But thanks in part to a recent loosening of the state's liquor laws there is a burgeoning booze business in the state where the majority of residents are non-drinking Mormons.

To see this boom, look no further than an old house and stable at the edge of Park City's ski slopes that has now become Utah's first distillery since 1870. It also happens to be ski-in, ski-out, making it -- according to its owner -- the only such facility in the world.

"Every state has weird drinking laws. Utah just gets a bum rap because the predominant religion of our population doesn't drink. But you can certainly get a drink," said David Perkins, proprietor of the High West Distillery. "I probably do more selling of Utah than I do selling of our spirits when I travel just because people don't understand Utah."

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Last year, the state legislature updated Utah's liquor laws. The most noticeable change was the elimination of the 40-plus-year old "private club" provision that forced people to complete a membership application when they visited bars. Anybody could purchase a temporary membership, but there was a fee -- basically a small cover charge -- and at the very least a perception of hassle.

"It is good for the state," Perkins said. "You don't want to turn your customers away."

Ski-In, Ski-Out Whisky Distillery

The new law also allows Perkins to sell bottles of his four whiskies, peach vodka and oat vodka directly to customers who come in for a drink, meal or just one of his informal tours.

(With 35 varieties of wine, High West also sells more wines by the glass than any other place in Utah, Perkins said.)

The distillery is across the street from a ski slope and Park City's Town Lift, making it virtually ski-in, ski-out. Not a bad way to arrive for a drink. Outside is a ski rack and inside the walls are lined with old photos of Park City and the house. The 250-gallon copper still sits behind glass at the entrance, Western-style modern art decorates the dining rooms and the parlor is filled with leather chairs and couches.

"I find very few places in town where I feel like I am in the West," Perkins said. "I didn't come here to feel like I was in New York."

Utah still has a few quirks: if you like your drink really strong, for instance, you still can't order a double. But as one local ski instructor explained at another bar, there is a way around the law: have your friend order a shot of the same liquor. Sure enough, the waitress winked at the order and left enough room in the instructor's drink to pour in the shot.

Beer Boom

Less than half an hour away in downtown Salt Lake City, Del Vance recently opened a new bar, the Beerhive Pub, that focuses on craft beers, including several from Utah.

"Utah has sort of an image of low-alcohol beer or no beer whatsoever. A lot of people are amazed they can even find beer in Utah," said Vance, who is also author of Beer in the Beehive: A History of Brewing in Utah.

No More 'Private Club' Law in Utah

Vance hopes the new laws will help the state shed its staid reputation. He said the private-club law, in particular, "really annoyed people and it gave the state a really bad image."

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