On my first trip to Utah this summer, I sat down to dinner on a gorgeous sunny day at Kita, the ambitious Japanese-inspired steakhouse in Pendry Park City. As I ate handfuls of soft milk bread coated in sesame butter and studied the drinks menu, unable to choose between sake, wine or a cocktail. Then my decision was made for me: a waiter brought the smallest dirty martini I’ve ever seen to a nearby table.
When the same server reached me, I asked if it was a mini martini, and why, and could I have it? She explained that it was actually their full-sized martini, which was tiny due to Utah laws dictating how much hard liquor can be served in a single drink.
This was my first exposure to the many laws surrounding alcohol in Utah. The server explained that the hard liquor, before it reaches your cocktail, passes through a metered dispensing device that attaches to the top of the liquor bottle, ensuring that no more than 1.5 ounces of “primary liquor” pours into one mixed drink at a time. . (Under Utah law, cocktails can have “secondary alcoholic flavorings,” but the drink cannot exceed 2.5 ounces total spirit alcohol.)
“Quite often people are shocked by the size of martinis,” said TJ Consiglio, Kita’s general manager. But, he pointed out, size adds to the fun: smaller cocktails mean larger glassware styles. small (much cuter) “Our Nic and Nora glasses aren’t seen often anymore, but they’re a perfect match for our Utah martinis.”
I soon learned of other state regulations: that draft beer cannot exceed 5% ABV – although beverages served by the bottle can have any percentage – and that restaurants cannot not serve drinks unless food is ordered.
According to the official Utah government website, the state’s liquor laws “are based on the general philosophy of making alcoholic beverages available in a manner that reasonably satisfies public demand.” It continues: “In this regard, however, the state does not promote or encourage the sale or consumption of alcohol.”
On my trip, I encountered other laws that surprised me less, since I had seen them in other states – you can’t buy alcohol on Sundays, for example. I’m from Pennsylvania, where you have to buy liquor from state-run stores.
But this precise regulation of alcohol in cocktails served in bars and restaurants has posed such an interesting challenge for Utah bartenders, which, in turn, breeds creativity. Beyond tiny tiny martinis.
“Alcohol laws create an environment where bartenders have to be meticulous while being creative,” Consiglio told me. “We are very specific in our spirit selections for all drinks and want to see what packs the most flavor in each pour.” This includes experimenting with “bushes and syrups that don’t contain alcohol but add layers on top of spirits;” a popular shishito cocktail includes sake and a shishito chili bush.
Beyond the booze, every dining establishment I visited in the state, from Deer Valley to Moab, offered truly delicious and thoughtful non-alcoholic beverages aimed at the state’s large sober population. . (The fact that I could order an ice cold glass of Fresca, in my opinion an underrated soda, just about anywhere was so exciting to me.) At Pendry Park City, one of the best things I drank was an alcohol-free cocktail called the Midsomer, by bartender Zack Rhoades: a refresher expertly balanced with honeydew and shrubby club soda, plus strawberries, lemon and mint blended together. The cocktail recently won Best Mixology in the Park City Area Restaurant Association competition.
When Erin Pinta, who runs a Park City food account on Instagram, moved to New York State two years ago, she was surprised by the laws surrounding happy hours (alcohol discounts are not allowed) and the maximum of 1.5 ounces for alcohol in cocktails. Since then, she has come to appreciate the local drinking culture. “I’ve found that these restrictions force restaurants and bartenders to get more creative with their cocktails,” she said. Her favorite bars are the High West Saloon, the Handle and YUTA in Park City, and she loves the blueberry mojito at the Royal Street Café in Deer Valley.
“The restrictions in some ways make our drinks more balanced,” Consiglio said. “Traditional cocktail ratios tend to have a very alcoholic feel. While guests may like a stiff drink, mixologists know that a well-balanced drink is well received by the masses and enjoyed multiple times per sitting.”
I’m not going to lie – my favorite drink experience in Utah was visiting Swig, a drive-thru “dirty soda” chain that makes giant, frozen soft drinks with various mixes, from flavored syrups to frozen fruit. On the way to the airport, I stopped in a Swig in Salt Lake City and reluctantly ordered the fizzy “Mango Breeze”, a very heavy mix of sparkling water, coconut syrup, vanilla syrup, mango puree, frozen coconut and coconut cream. To my shock, the drink was the most refreshing and satisfying soda-based fountain I’ve ever put into my body. I’ll be back for that.