PARK CITY, Utah
Feb. 1, 2010 -- 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."
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.
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."
"A lot of tourists left, I think, probably a little bit annoyed and I would assume went somewhere else for their next ski vacation where they weren't going to be hassled as much," Vance said. "People couldn't figure out why it was that they had to join a club that didn't have a swimming pool, golf course or a tennis court."
The Beerhive took over an old FedEx store and now has about 100 beers on tap. But it's more unique feature might be a narrow strip of ice lining the top of the bar counter where patrons can place their beer between sips.
"Your whole life you're used to getting that last, nasty warm sip of beer. With this, the last sip is colder than the first," Vance said.
A five-minute walk away from the Beerhive is Squatters, which has been brewing beer for two decades.
The brewpub always has 12 of its own beers on tap and makes about 20 seasonal varieties.
Brewmaster Jennifer Talley and her assistant Jason Stock make fun beers based on their taste and what they are in the mood to drink. On a recent weekday they bottled 2,240 bottles of their new 529 beer, aged 529 days in oak barrels in the basement.
"We're here to prove the stigma wrong. We've been here 20 years making amazing beers," Talley said. "People don't even know that you can have a drink in Utah. Not only can you have a drink, you can have amazing beers, amazing wines."
Utah's Growing Microbrewery Business
Thanks to the new law Talley can now make beers with a high percentage of alcohol, although they still can't serve those on tap -- only in bottles.
"It just opened up our entire portfolio of beers to be able to make anything we want, any style we want," she said.
Squatters and other brewpubs can now also sell six-packs of beer directly to consumers to take home. Previously, the brewery had to sell the beer to the state and then buy it back at a markup. Squatters said sales have quadrupled because of that change.
For now, Squatters -- like most other Utah breweries -- sells the vast majority of its beer in-state. The pub is just too small to keep up with bottling large quantities of beer for distribution. But Squatters does hope to get its beer on the shelves of liquor stores elsewhere in a few years.
"We want to make sure our locals are taken care of first," Talley said, "then we will take care of everybody else."