Legislators Fight Nebraska's Boilermaker Alcohol Ban

Bartenders in Neb. can't mix beer and liquor, a law leftover from prohibition.

February 16, 2010, 10:09 AM

LINCOLN, Neb., Feb. 17, 2010— -- It's perfectly legal in Nebraska, as in other states, for an adult to go into a bar and order a Long Island Iced Tea or any other drink that combines several different kinds of alcohol.

But unlike every other state, Nebraska makes it illegal to serve a boilermaker, an Irish Car Bomb or any other cocktail that mixes liquor with beer -- mixed drinks sold throughout the rest of nation.

Nobody remembers exactly when the law went into effect, but Nebraska Liquor Control Commissioner Hobert Rupe suspects it was around the time of Prohibition. Now, he's among those trying to scratch the law from the books, introducing what's become known as the "boilermaker bill" -- though there is no certainty they'll prevail.

"Was it a problem in 1935?" Rupe asked during an interview with ABCNews.com. "Perhaps. Is it a problem in 2010? I don't think so."

Many bartenders agree, noting a certain hypocrisy in today's enforcement of the ban. "I think it's kind of silly," said Kim Ringo-Bright, general manager at the Starlite Lounge, a bar in downtown Lincoln, Neb. "It doesn't make a lot of sense. I mean, a Long Island Tea [which is legal] has five liquors in it. You know, five different kinds of liquor. So you can't do a shot and a beer?"

Not in Nebraska. A 12-ounce Long Island Iced Tea would contain approximately 33 percent alcohol by volume, not counting the ice, while a 12-ounce boilermaker, which is a shot of whiskey in a beer, holds about 10 percent alcohol by volume. The Long Island Iced Tea is legal; the boilermaker is not.

"It would take a number of [boilermakers], and you'd get full before you'd have the same effect as from the Long Island Tea," said Dan Crowell, who studies mixology, the art of making mixed drinks. Crowell also works for Sterling Distributing Company, an Omaha-based liquor distributor.

Originally, the ban was meant to deal with the phenomenon known as "needle beer" or "spiked beer," said Rupe, who is also the president of the National Conference of Liquor Administrators. During Prohibition, most Nebraska communities -- like many other towns across the nation -- had a regulation that prohibited consumption of spirits in public, including alcoholic beer. But non-alcoholic beer was legal, leading some people to unlawfully add alcohol to it: Beer bottles were then corked like wine, allowing some to inject liquor into a bottle with a syringe.

Loopholes in Boilermaker Alcohol Ban

Some 70 years later, most Nebraskans still aren't generally aware of the law. At least once a week, Marypat Heineman, a bar manager and bartender at Starlite Lounge, gets a request for a boilermaker or an Irish Car Bomb. Some are just trying their luck, but most don't know better. Her answer is usually a no, but the law has loopholes.

Besides, Rupe himself admits that enforcement of the ban is sporadic if not virtually nonexistent. He says there are no records of citations for violating the ban.

Heineman smiles as she describes the logic around the loophole. No, you can't serve your customers an Irish Car Bomb if they ask you for an Irish Car Bomb. No, you can't serve them separate ingredients of an Irish Car Bomb (Guinness, Jameson Irish whiskey and Baileys Irish Cream) if they just tried to order an Irish Car Bomb. But yes, you can give them the beer and the shots if you technically don't know -- and they don't say -- that those will be mixed together.

But neither the seeming hypocrisy nor the fact that Nebraska is the only state with such a law guarantees that the "boilermaker bill" will get through the legislature. In fact, a similar bill has already been introduced twice, in 2006 and 2007, but it stalled in a committee both times, mostly caving in under pressure from Project Extra Mile.

Project Extra Mile is an Omaha-based group that works to prevent underage drinking. The state-wide coalition is using the current ban as part of its lawsuit against the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

The lawsuit is primarily aimed at encouraging the state of Nebraska to classify and tax flavored alcoholic beverages -- commonly known as alcopops -- as hard liquor instead of beer. These drinks start off as brewed malt beverages later infused with distilled spirits -- a process illegal in the state technically but practically not treated as such.

Project Extra Mile Executive Director Diane Riibe now questions the motives behind the "sudden urgency" to eliminate this specific statute. It comes at the same time as the group's ongoing battle to outlaw the alcopops in Nebraska, or at least make them less available to underage drinkers, whom the project says are the drinks' target audience.

Alcohol Regulations Made Sense 'A Long Time Ago'

"I know that Project Extra Mile thinks that this is a … well-thought-out backdoor scheme," said Nebraska Senator Russ Karpisek, who introduced the current "boilermaker bill" and also was on the committee that considered a similar bill in 2007. "I'm sorry if it's hurting their case. That was not the intent at all."

Many states are caught up in a similar alcopops discussion -- and "all states are always re-evaluating their alcohol laws and looking for changes," said Ronalee Polad, a former Michigan Liquor Control Commission enforcement officer who now tracks alcohol regulations for a program run by the National Hospitality Institute.

A law like the boilermaker ban "made sense when it was introduced a long time ago," Polad said. "But things evolve and business changes, and there are a lot of regulations that haven't kept up with the way business is done and people live their lives."

For some of the Starlite Lounge patrons, it was also more of a question of principle.

"I believe in people making their own choices for their own reasons and not have to be told what to do by the government or anybody else," said Kristina Bargen, a 21-year-old agribusiness student from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Susan Horn, 59, a professor from Lincoln, wondered: "If I choose to shoot down two martinis really fast, what is the difference?" Her daughter Taura, a 32-year-old photographer, agreed: "We all have a free choice of what we can and can't drink."

Neither the Horns nor Bargen had heard about the ban on mixing beer and alcohol in Nebraska before. And for Liquor Commissioner Rupe, that may be an achievement in itself. If anything, he said, "at least now people will be aware of the law."

ABCNews.com contributor Alina Selyukh is a member of the ABC News on Campus program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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