American Alcohol Laws Need Reform


Different types of Kentucky bourbon at a Party Mart liquor store in Louisville, Ky., in 2014. (John Sommers II/Reuters)

In 2021, American alcohol laws remain needlessly complex and archaic. It’s time to move toward a freer and more commonsense system.

Americans can be forgiven for being confused. In many places, you can now get a margarita delivered to your door from the local Mexican restaurant; the brewery down the street can drop off a growler; and you can get a bottle of wine in your weekly InstaCart order. But if you try to order a bottle of whiskey from your favorite Tennessee distillery, it suddenly all goes awry.

Americans on both the left and the right are tired of our nation’s hopelessly convoluted alcohol laws. COVID-19 has ushered in an era of unprecedented boozy deliveries dropped off at our doorsteps, but the revolution is far from complete. Although over 40 states allow wineries to mail their wine to consumers, only a small handful of states permit distilleries or breweries to do so. This nonsensical distinction does more than confuse consumers; it also creates arbitrary winners and losers in the marketplace.

While the pandemic has led to a wave of reforms that allow local restaurants, grocery stores, and alcohol producers to hand-deliver products to our homes, shipping beer or liquor in the mail remains nearly impossible. The United States Postal Service entirely forbids the shipment of alcohol through its channels, and barely a dozen states allow the mailing of liquor or beer.

Unsurprisingly, consumers are becoming increasingly vocal about their support for alcohol shipping. The Distilled Spirits Council just released a survey indicating that 80 percent of Americans think distillers should be permitted to ship liquor to consumers’ doorsteps.

Yet change remains frustratingly slow. To get to a truly online, national shipping market for alcohol, both Congress and state lawmakers need to act. Congress should pass now-pending legislation to allow the post office to send alcohol, and each state needs to treat wine, beer, and liquor equally when it comes to shipping.

Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon, passed a comprehensive reform to do just that during the pandemic. Seven other states temporarily green-lighted in-state liquor shipments during COVID, showing that there’s nothing inherently dangerous about shipping alcohol.

Despite this, most states restrict alcohol from being shipped via mail within state borders and are particularly skeptical about alcohol shipped from other states. This legal structure stretches far back into American history.

During Prohibition, as more and more states voted to go dry, they ran into a problem: Neighboring wet states were still illegally shipping in trainloads of alcohol. In response, state governments, and ultimately Congress, grew increasingly aggressive trying to crack down on interstate alcohol shipments. After Prohibition was repealed, this anti-shipping sentiment did not die away.

State governments still maintain a whole host of anti-outsider laws when it comes to booze. In some states, liquor store owners must be residents of the state in which they are operating — though this was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Other states have laws that allow only in-state alcohol producers to mail alcohol — not out-of-state ones.

Whenever a set of laws traces its origin to the pre-Prohibition era, over a century ago, it means it is time to modernize. We’re no longer living in a world where we need to restrict alcohol from flooding into dry states, and we operate in an Internet-infused economy in which Americans want and expect everything to be delivered to their doors. If we already are allowing pharmaceutical drugs, ammunition, and pesticides to be shipped via the mail, why not alcohol?

In our post-COVID new-normal, many Americans will be legally allowed to order a hand-delivered bottle of rum from the local distillery, but not one mailed from that same distillery — and especially not one mailed from the next state over. At least they’ll be able to wash away their sorrows with a to-go mojito from the local bar.

In 2021, American alcohol laws remain needlessly complex and archaic. It’s time to move toward a freer and more commonsense system. Which means it is time to allow bourbon in your mailbox.

C. Jarrett Dieterle is the director of commercial freedom and a senior fellow at the R Street Institute.





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