Drinks all round in the not-so-dry Mormon state

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The Independent Online
Sunday was Super Bowl night and, like watering holes all across America, the Thirsty Squirrel was jammed with boisterous punters cheering their teams. Penetrating the scrum to reach the bar was hard enough, but once there I was faced with another obstacle. ''Are you a member?'' the bartender politely inquired.

This threw me for a second until a man in the melee whom I had never seen before shouted that he would ''sponsor'' me for the evening. I thanked him and, presto, my beer was duly served. I was reminded that I was in Utah.

Settled by the Mormon pioneer Brigham Young in 1847, Utah still largely belongs to the secretive and deeply conservative Mormon church. Seventy per cent of the population are Mormons, and so are nine out of 10 of the members of the state legislature.

It was in 1833 that the founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, surprised his followers - and doubtless dismayed many - by declaring that he had received a message from God forbidding the consumption of such polluting substances as tea, coffee, tobacco products and alcohol. The doctrine was detailed in Smith's Book of Wisdom, and the faithful obey it today. Even that most American of drinks, Coca-Cola, is anathema to a strict Mormon.

Not surprisingly, Utah has long had a reputation for enforced clean living. Though the state may not be a theocracy exactly, the Mormon church - formally the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - looms over all state business; whenever public policy and moral issues coincide, it is the deciding force. The only time the legislature overrode Church opinion was when it supported the repealing of Prohibition 63 years ago.

The Church's influence has, to be sure, helped shape a state that is among America's safest and most pleasant. Salt Lake City, where most of the population is concentrated, is a tidy if passionless place, dramatised only by the spectacular backdrop of the Wasatch range to the east. This is one of the fastest-growing states in America, with low house prices and a burgeoning hi-tech industry - not to mention the skiing - attracting a steady flow of newcomers.

Utah has been struggling for the last few years to shed its puritanical image, aware that it is a damper on its tourist and convention business. Most striking was Salt Lake City's campaign - which finally brought victory last June - to be host to the 2002 Winter Olympics. The toughest challenge was convincing the selection committee that Utah was not nearly as strait- laced as the world supposed and that one myth in particular could be disposed of: that it is dry. As the Olympic bid chairman, Frank Joklik, pronounced shortly before final selection: "If you can't get a drink in Salt Lake City, you can't be very thirsty."

It is true that finding a tipple in Salt Lake today is barely more difficult than anywhere else in America. Various laws have been amended or repealed recently so as to make it still easier. Restaurants, for example, are no longer forbidden, as they were until 1991, to serve wine by the glass, or to mix drinks for their customers.

The grip of the state - and thus the Church - on alcohol consumption, nonetheless, remains total. All liquor stores are state-owned, and hefty taxes make private drinking expensive. A six-pack of beer in central Salt Lake City will cost you $13 (pounds 8.50), compared with about $6 back East. Restaurants can serve alcohol, but food must account for more than 70 per cent of the customer's bill. Technically, bars do not exist. Instead, drinking establishments like the Thirsty Squirrel have to masquerade as private clubs. The membership fee is usually about $5 - which goes to the state.

Few among the minority non-Mormon population, at least, take much of this very seriously. On returning to our Salt Lake hotel, we inquire where we might go for a final round in the area. "Hang on," the receptionist replies, "I'll get you one". She ruffles through some unused membership cards for all the "clubs" in the neighbourhood before finding one for the Port O' Call, a couple of blocks away. "Here. You can get five people in on that."

David Usborne