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To-Go Cocktails Could Be Here to Stay — Just Not From Your Favorite Dive Bar

California could make to-go cocktails permanent, but excludes bars without food

Bottle cocktail from Pacific Cocktail Haven
To-go cocktails like this one from Pacific Cocktail Haven could remain after the pandemic ends
Pacific Cocktail Haven

Ask any California food and drinks insider what innovation they’d like to keep after the pandemic ends, and you’ll get the same answer: cocktails to go. Long illegal across California, premixed drinks to go were temporarily allowed after an emergency change to liquor laws last year. Now a state legislator wants to make those relaxed laws permanent, allowing takeout cocktails forevermore — but the proposal leaves out booze-focused spots like dive or cocktail bars, or any other operation that serves drinks without food.

Despite outsider perception of California as a freewheeling party state, its liquor regulations have always been pretty strict, with a last call at bars that — despite legislative effort after legislative effort — is capped at 2 a.m., and rules preventing the sale of cocktails that are already mixed for anyone but on-premise drinkers.

While venues have long sought loopholes around the latter regulation (behold the cutty bang), it wasn’t until March of 2020, when bars were completely shuttered and restaurants relegated to takeout service only, that the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) made an emergency change to its regulations, saying that properly packaged drinks could be sold with meals served to pickup or delivery customers.

At the time, the ABC said the change was only temporary, an effort to support bars and restaurants that were so suddenly shuttered as COVID-19 spread across the region. On Thursday, Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat representing Napa County, proposed legislation that would make those relaxed ABC regulations permanent, thus allowing restaurants and bars that serve meals to continue to serve takeout cocktails even after the pandemic ends.

Via a written statement, Dodd says that the idea isn’t to encourage Vegas-level partying on California streets. Instead, it’s an economic play, intended to save local businesses. “If allowing restaurants to sell carryout cocktails alongside a meal helps keep their doors open, we must do it,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s about preserving jobs and getting our economy back on track.”

But only some local businesses, it should be noted. A look at the legislation, which is known as SB-389, reveals that businesses like dive bars and cocktail-specific spots are left out of the job preservation plan. As with the current set of regulations, all takeout alcoholic beverages must be “sold in conjunction with meals prepared for pickup or delivery either by the licensee or by a meal provider.” That means that to participate in the takeout cocktail bounty, when booze-only bars are allowed to reopen, the only drinks they can sell must be consumed on-site.

Ben Bleiman owns San Francisco bars like Soda Popinski and Teeth. He’s also the president of statewide bar and nightlife trade group the California Music & Culture Association, as well as the president of SF’s Entertainment Commission. He says that he’s “really excited to support” Dodd’s proposal, but predicts that drinks to go could be an integral part of the booze business for years to come, if the law is passed.

“Even post-COVID,” Bleiman says, “delivery and to-go forms of service are going to survive,” and will make up a significant revenue stream for bars and restaurants. “The ability for our small businesses to engage on that is crucial for their survival.”

Bleiman notes that some of the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic are also the state’s most influential. “It’s the cocktail bars in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and other California cities that really created cocktail culture as we know it now,” Bleiman says. Bartenders in those spots “have been working for the last decade to perfect what the world is drinking now.”

While statewide dining lobby the California Restaurant Association has yet to respond to questions about the proposal, in San Francisco, local lobby the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) is pleased by Dodd’s move. “The GGRA supports Senator Dodd’s Bill 389 to make permanent restaurants’ ability to sell to-go cocktails, beer and wine when accompanied by food,” a spokesperson told Eater SF via text message. “This bill will greatly benefit restaurants as food and drink are our focus and to-go beverage sales have been helpful for an industry struggling to survive.”

But many of those places — all equipped to serve “high-quality mixed drinks in sealed containers,” as Bleiman puts it, don’t have kitchens, so they might not be able to offer that food accompaniment the GGRA mentions. The same is true of the state’s many dive bars. That means they’re left out of Dodd’s stimulus plan, at least, as it’s written now. Efforts to contact Dodd’s office on why those business were left out of his plan were not responded to as of publication time.

While Bleiman says that Dodd’s legislation could be a game-changer for businesses, he doesn’t expect that it will change drinker behavior or lead to wild partying in the streets. Unlike places like New Orleans or Las Vegas (the worst-case scenarios typically mentioned by opponents of relaxed alcohol laws), “you can’t just walk down the street drinking a beer,” he says. “We have laws, we have enforcement. The idea that this is going to lead to chaos just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.”

But what the rule could do, Bleiman says, is finally level the playing field between bars and your local Safeway or 7-Eleven. In places like that, Bleiman says, “it’s been perfectly legal for years to buy a factory-sealed, canned gin and tonic.

“Why wouldn’t we want our small businesses to be able to participate in that?” he asks. “All we’re saying is that people should be able to buy a mixed drink from a bartender, to enjoy in the same place that they’d enjoy a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer that they’d buy at a store. I just don’t see the difference, here.”