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Bigger than beer

Exploring the finer points of Oklahoma’s new liquor laws

Beer selection at Ranch Acres, 3324 E. 31st St.

Greg Bollinger

We’re now just over a month into the implementation of Oklahoma’s modernized liquor laws. These much-needed changes represent a significant milestone in catching us up to the national norm, allowing us to be more competitive, and encouraging new business growth. While most people are aware they can now buy “strong beer” and wine at grocery and convenience stores, there are several other changes that are just as exciting but less commonly known.

Oklahoma’s odd liquor laws date back to statehood in 1907. We have the distinction of being the only state to enter the Union with a constitutional provision for prohibition already in place. Federal Prohibition wasn’t enacted until 1920; however, by 1933, most of the nation was tired of that noble experiment. Oklahoma adopted 3.2% ABW (alcohol by weight) beer only after the U.S. government classified it as non-intoxicating—a choice that stuck with us for 85 years.

The federal government repealed Prohibition in December of 1933, but Oklahoma was set on sobriety and held onto it until 1959. It wasn’t until 1984 that Oklahoma had a per-county vote to allow liquor by the drink, and it was only in June of this year that the remaining 14 dry counties voted to allow liquor by the drink.

The recent changes enacted by SQ 792 affect everything from the distribution process of alcohol to the methods used by establishments to make infused liquors. It will be a few months until the broad effects on businesses are fully known, but understanding the consumer side of things is slightly simpler.

ABV limits and expanded hours

The first distinction to make is the difference between what a liquor store and a grocery/convenience store can offer. Both liquor stores and grocery stores can now serve chilled beer and wine, however, grocery stores have a maximum limit of 8.99% ABV for beer and 15% ABV for wine. You can still only buy spirits at the liquor store.

Grocery stores can sell beer and wine seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., including holidays. Liquor stores’ allowable hours of operation have expanded 8 a.m. to midnight, but they must be closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Sundays. Fortunately, Sunday business hours can now be determined by a vote on a per-county basis.

Non-alcoholic items and bulk sales

Liquor stores also have the new perk of being able to sell non-
alcoholic items like cocktail olives, bitters, glassware, ice, and more, as long as the products don’t exceed 20 percent of their monthly sales.

Wine enthusiasts are sure to be excited about direct to consumer sales. Oklahomans can now order up to six nine-liter cases of any wine as long as it’s not available in Oklahoma.

Happier happy hours and Public Consumption

For those who would rather enjoy a drink at their favorite watering hole, they’ll now have the ability to partake in real happy hours. Under the old law, happy hours were rare because businesses were restricted on the hours they could run a special, and the special had to last an entire week. The new laws allow drink specials at any hour of any day, as long as they are not discounted for less than 6 percent markup of the cost. This means after-work happy hours and ladies’ night specials are a possibility. Just don’t expect to order a bucket of beer for yourself, as it’s illegal to serve someone more than two drinks at a time.

One final small but significant change is that the public consumption of beer and wine is not expressly prohibited. Steven Barker, Deputy Director and General Counsel of the Oklahoma ABLE Commission, confirms ABLE interprets the law as only prohibiting the public consumption of spirits. However, he stresses that it’s largely unknown how municipalities will interpret and enforce this change.

While all of these changes are the most progressive push that Oklahoma has seen in decades, there is room for improvement. The plethora of new Oklahoma breweries can now sell beer from their taproom; however, distilleries don’t have the same benefits, thanks to a veto from Gov. Mary Fallin.

Noah Bush, part owner of Hodges Bend and Saturn Room, has over 15 years of experience in the industry and offers some practical advice on the impact of the new choices consumers are now provided.

“Giving your money to a liquor store or a wine shop where they hand select from local distributors is important because it keeps businesses here in Tulsa,” Bush said. “It is a great progressive thing that we are selling alcohol in grocery stores, but I want people to make a concerted effort to spend locally.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with the big name brands. I use them in my bars and drink them at home, but I prefer choosing local businesses because I own local businesses,” he continued. “We need to make sure that we are supporting our economy.”

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