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Cocktails to Go Are Finally, Nearly Approved in California — But New Restrictions Won’t Actually Help Bars

The state bill permanently legalizing takeout cocktails is pending final approval, but now cut out bars that don’t serve food

Bottled cocktails from Horsefeather Horsefeather

Cocktails to go appear to be here to stay, even as the pandemic mutates on. But before you raise a glass to the good news, check that drink for flies. The bill to legalize cocktails to go is pending final approval, but the latest amendments have added new restrictions, casting doubt on how much this measure is actually going to help bars.

The bill proposing to make cocktails to go permanent (SB 389) was approved in the state assembly Thursday, September 9, after being approved in the Senate in May. Now it heads to the governor’s desk for final approval. Recalls aside, restaurant and bar industry leaders expect Governor Gavin Newsom to sign. Though no longer an active partner, he was the founder of the PlumpJack Winery group, which includes several bars in San Francisco: Balboa Cafe, White Rabbit, and Wildhawk. And as he shared with Eater SF at margarita legend Tommy’s in June, he specifically extended the temporary emergency order to allow more time for this bill to move through the legislature.

But in the meantime, the bill has gone through several notable amendments. As now written, cocktails to go will only be legal through December 31, 2026. All drinks still must be sold with a “bona fide meal,” cutting out bars that don’t serve food. There’s a limit of two drinks per meal, which may spell the end of big-batch cocktails, such as those glorious quarts of margaritas and full wine bottles worth of negroni. Plus cocktails to go are allowed for pick up only, requiring the person ordering to show a photo ID, which means no delivery.

“It’s a big disappointment. It’s a big nothing burger,” says Ben Bleiman, president of the SF Bar Alliance, and owner of Soda Popinksi’s and Teeth. “This bill is not a cause for celebration.” Bleiman says he and other bar owners from across the state met with Senator Bill Dodd of Napa and weighed in on early drafts, but later heard bars without food had been removed from the legislation. Takeout cocktails have been a valuable revenue stream for bars now struggling with debt due to the pandemic, and Bleiman says at least having the option to continue offering them would have been helpful. “COVID is not gone by any means. A lot of people have gotten comfortable ordering cocktails for their home. We’re now cut out of that economy completely.”

But even for restaurants and bars that do serve food, shutting down delivery will limit sales. “We appreciate that SB 389 will allow restaurants to continue to sell to-go cocktails … ” Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, said in a statement. “However, we are concerned that the bill now requires the sale to be made directly to consumers, which eliminates the third-party delivery option, and may cause significant drops in sales for restaurants.” (To be clear, restaurants will still be able to sell bottles of wine and cans of beer for delivery, as those are in the manufacturer’s original packaging. So you should still be able to get a bottle of Greek white delivered with your Souvla lamb salad.)

Cocktails to go were a novelty of the pandemic, with bored drinkers at home wanting to support their favorite bars, resulting in an explosion of boozy baby bottles and adult Capri Sun–style pouches. But as restaurants and bars have reopened for indoor and outdoor dining, the thirst seems to have declined. At the time of writing, for instance, the Snug has dropped down to limited days and hours for takeout and delivery, and while Horsefeather appears to still be going strong, Casements has cut way back.

Casements co-owner Gillian Fitzgerald says cocktail delivery truly saved the new bar during the December lockdown when she personally drove around town dropping off whiskey bottles. But with the spring reopening earlier this year, the bar cut back delivery from seven to five to two days, and now just does takeout bottles from the bar — to the tune of half a dozen a week. Still, she’s disappointed with the new limitations in the permanent bill, and says she’ll likely have to kill the remaining takeout bottles she was selling, which were all large batch format.

“The point was to help us … ” Fitzgerald says. “I understand that [our government] has to take baby steps. But a lot of things have changed, in terms of how people consume. We have to go with the times. Not backwards.”

Separately, the bill that allows serving alcohol in parklets (SB 314) has also passed in the Senate and assembly, and is also moving toward final approval. That one is on a slightly different timeline, now extended through July 1, 2024. But at least restaurants and bars should be able to continue using their existing licenses to keep serving wine, beer, and cocktails in parklets for the next few years.