Alcohol is a booming business in North Carolina. In 2010, the state was home to forty-five craft breweries. Today, that number stands at 260, according to the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild. The state’s distilling industry has also seen stunning growth, tripling in number from about a dozen in 2013 to more than forty today.
But this is the South, so there are a whole lot of odd and often antiquated laws that dictate how you can imbibe.
Many of them go back to the state’s early days; religious groups began pushing for prohibition as early as 1820. Voters back then wisely disagreed, but less than a century later, in 1909, North Carolina became the first Southern state to outlaw “intoxicating spirits”—a full eleven years before the 18th Amendment established Prohibition nationally. And, when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, North Carolina was one of two states (the other being South Carolina) that refused to ratify the 21st Amendment, although prohibition was phased out. The ABC system, set up in 1937 and still in place today, allows local governments to control the sale of liquor. So-called “control states”—there are seventeen—see higher liquor prices than other states.
Yes, North Carolina’s liquor laws have come a long way—you couldnít order liquor by the drink until the 1970s—but plenty of logic-defying laws remain on the books. Happy hours and many drink specials are illegal. Instead, discounts must be offered to all customers for the entire day. This means no two-for-ones, and no ladies nights.
By law, mixed drinks have to contain at least one ounce of liquor (unless a customer asks for less). Relatedly, bartenders who make mixed drinks have to be twenty-one, but you only have to be eighteen to serve beer and wine. And bartenders can only serve one drink per person at a time—unless, of course, that person ordered a boilermaker (aka a shot and a beer, aka totally not two drinks).
Here’s a tangential fun fact: North Carolina’s impaired-driving laws carve out one mode of transportation as an exception to the state’s definition of a vehicle: horses. You can still get a DUI on a bike or an electric scooter.
Back to laws more likely to affect you: Businesses that hold permits for the on-premises sales of alcohol have to stop serving at 2:00 a.m., but state law gives customers an extra thirty minutes to empty their cups. A law prohibiting alcohol sales before noon on Sunday was on the books for fifty-four years, until 2017, when it was amended to let local governments allow alcohol sales as early as (gasp) 10:00 a.m. on Sunday. Oh, the sin.
Until 2005, beers sold in North Carolina could be no more than 6 percent alcohol by volume (just to highlight how ludicrous that is, the ABV of a Budweiser is 5 percent). You still can’t buy beer that has more than 15 percent ABV, which means if you want, say, a Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, you’ll have to drive to Virginia. And North Carolina craft breweries that produce more than twenty-five thousand barrels per year are required to sell all of their beer through an outside distributor, because the legislature has decided that itís important to keep the middlemen happy.
But as North Carolinaís beer and distilling industries continue to grow and expose these absurdities, change could be on the horizon. Despite getting several lawmakers on board a ninth attempt to raise the so-called barrel cap since it was set in 2003, brewers failed to get the law changed last year. So they’ve taken their fight to the courts. Two Charlotte breweries sued the state, saying the law is unconstitutional because it artificially suppresses the beer industry and favors distributors.
Now, the state’s system of liquor sales itself is under scrutiny. After a state audit exposed that the ABC commission had wasted millions of dollars, one legislator says he’ll be introducing a bill to allow private businesses to join the market. We’ll drink to that.