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

SALT LAKE DAYS

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

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue