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Drinking Problems

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A chalkboard outside a restaurant catches my eye. It touts brunch and mimosas. I love brunch. I love mimosas. So in I go.

"Oh, you have to wait on the mimosa, hon," my waitress says. "It's only eleven. We can't sell mimosas before noon."

That was my first encounter with North Carolina's labyrinth of liquor laws. Talk about a Sunday morning coming down.

It still perturbs me that a true Sunday brunch can't get started before noon, but I can live with it. After all, there's a sizable voting bloc—maybe not in the Triangle, but definitely in the state's more rural regions—that believes you should be in a pew, not on a bar stool, on Sunday mornings, and legislators will be careful to appease it. Otherwise, what prohibiting alcohol sales before noon on Sundays actually accomplishes is somewhat puzzling.

That's only one of North Carolina's laws that affect your drinking. Another rule you may encounter when going out is a request at the door that you join the "private club." State law dictates that to sell spirits to the public, you must either have a kitchen and an inside dining area for at least thirty-six people, plus do at least 30 percent of your sales in food and nonalcoholic beverages, or be a private club. This one really won't impede your evening's flow, however. You join immediately by filling out a card with your name and address. Occasionally, you may have to pay a small lifetime membership fee—usually $1 to $5. If the place only sells beer and wine, no "membership" (or food sales) is required.

Yet another anachronistic law means happy-hour pricing is prohibited. If you do see a place advertising "happy hour," it's offering you specials on food, not drink. That's allowed. The only exception for drinks is when an establishment offers the discounted price for the full business day. That's why you may occasionally find spots touting half-price bottles of wine on a typically slow midweek day. You also won't see "half-price drinks for ladies" or similar promotions, which are also forbidden.

You can always have happy hour at home, of course. That will necessitate a trip to your local ABC store, which is controlled by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. When you go to pick up your favorite bottle of spirits, you'll pay a price set by a suit in a Raleigh office. Also, if your favorite spirit happens to be from a less mainstream distillery, it may not be available. The stores are allowed to stock their shelves only by selecting from a list created in that same Raleigh office. If it's not on the list, they can't stock it. To get your drink of choice, you can request a special order—as long as you prepay and buy at least a case of it. Alternatively, you could take a road trip to a state (helloooo, South Carolina) with privatized liquor stores, which tend to have more interesting selections, a more invested staff, and better prices. If that sounds good to you, check out privatizenc.org.

Happily, not all regulations work against you. One 2005 piece of legislation, commonly referred to as the "Pop the Cap" law, got rid of a statute that limited beer sold in the state to 6 percent alcohol by volume. It cleared a path for more styles to be sold, creating a fertile environment for the growth of the state's now-booming craft beer industry.

Of course, as inconvenient as the state's drinking laws can be to navigate, circumstances could be worse. Lest we forget, it only became legal in North Carolina for a restaurant to prepare and sell its own mixed drinks in 1978. So, maybe things aren't so bad.

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