In 2003, CBS News ran a segment on a California wine called Charles Shaw that was selling phenomenally well. The reason? Prior to the report, Charles Shaw’s Shiraz had beaten out 2,300 other wines to garner the gold medal at the Annual International Eastern Wine Competition. The wine was pretty tasty and cost a mere $1.99 a bottle. When CBS spotlighted the inexpensive wine, its popularity soared even more and was dubbed “Two Buck Chuck” by wine aficionados.
A great tasting bottle of wine that costs less than a latte? Before you could say Bacchanalia, people in Pittsburgh were searching for Two Buck Chuck. The only problem was the wine was sold at Trader Joe’s, and Pittsburgh didn’t have a Trader Joe’s yet, and even if we’d had one, because of Pennsylvania’s crazy liquor laws, Trader Joe’s wouldn’t have been permitted to stock and sell the wine.
At a wine and cheese party a few months later, a friend who had a vacation home near the Ohio border purchased several bottles of Two Buck Chuck in the Buckeye State and brought them to the party, where everyone there lamented Pennsylvania’s outmoded method for overseeing the selling and buying of alcohol.
The relationship between the alcohol consumer, distributor, maker, and the government has always been a rocky one in Pennsylvania. The region’s first skirmish with the government over liquor began with The Whiskey Rebellion of the late 1700s. Violence erupted in our area when the newly formed government headed by President George Washington imposed a “whiskey tax” on those farmers/distillers to generate revenue for the new nation’s treasury.
Although we haven’t come to blows over liquor (outside of the occasional bar fight) in many years, nevertheless, our liquor history has continued to perplex, frustrate, and confuse many. To understand this history, we must go back a bit in time. Throughout much of the 1800s, various Temperance movements to ban alcohol rose and fell until the arrival of the early 1900s dawned and several “isms” were born: feminism, socialism, unionism, and progressivism. These social constructs all found a common enemy in liquor and a united move to ban all wine, beer, and spirits was soon afoot.
The Temperance advocates realized their dream and the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning intoxicating beverages went into effect on January 17, 1920. We all know how well that worked out. Speakeasies, bootleggers, bathtub gin, and organized crime proliferated until the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition effective December 5, 1933.
When Prohibition’s death rattle began, Pennsylvania’s governor, Gifford Pinchot, took action. Four days before Prohibition ended, Governor Pinchot created the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and state-run liquor stores with the implicit intent to “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.”
Governor Pinchot certainly succeeded. For more than eight decades, the residents of and visitors to Pennsylvania have had to navigate the most convoluted liquor laws to buy and consume alcohol. For instance, to purchase wine or spirits you must go to a state-controlled liquor store. To purchase beer, you must go to a beer distributor and buy a keg or case of the sudsy stuff. However, if you only desire a six pack, you have to go to a bar, restaurant, or a licensed retailer because beer distributors cannot sell the lesser quantity. Hence, even though we now have Trader Joe’s in our area, we still cannot buy wine while doing the grocery shopping. Governor Pinchot’s wish to make buying liquor in Pennsylvania inconvenient certainly was realized.
How about his wish to make it as expensive as possible? Various studies show that some things are cheaper in Pennsylvania while some are more expensive. The PLCB contends that it negotiates cheaper rates because it buys large quantities of liquor and passes the savings on to Pennsylvania consumers. However, most of the studies also show that even if we may experience some cheaper liquor prices, we do not have as vast a selection as do neighboring states. To add to the mess, restaurateurs must order their liquor through the LCB, which only minimally discounts their purchases. In turn, Pennsylvania restaurant owners must charge more for their liquor compared to restaurants elsewhere. Add other regulations, like not being able to bring any liquor into Pennsylvania or that you must be 18 to serve alcoholic beverages but you must be 21 to consume them, and you have a leviathan of legal restrictions that can seem suffocating and downright contradictory.
For instance, the state is in the practice of reaping revenue from a product some consider to be harmful. Toss in union workers and their claim that numerous employees will be put out of jobs, and reluctance by the state to relinquish the authority to use liquor as a means to bring in revenue if alcohol sales were privatized, and you have a cocktail of confusion. For example, most people don’t know that there is a “temporary” Johnstown Flood tax assessed on our liquor. To aid with the recovery after the Johnstown Flood in 1936, the state imposed an emergency, temporary tax on all alcohol sales in the state. The tax rate was 10 percent when adopted by the legislature. It was raised to 15 percent in 1963, and to 18 percent in 1968, and remains at 18 percent nearly 80 years later. This tax never appears on your sales receipt and illustrates how once the government gets its hands on something, especially money, it’s hard to pry it loose.
It’s no wonder then that an internet search of Pennsylvania liquor laws results in numerous articles about how Pennsylvania is a disaster for alcohol imbibers and merchants. A 2013 Time magazine article cited the Commonwealth in the “Top 3 Worst States in the U.S. to Drink.” Forbes also featured an article that same year detailing the travails of being an out-of-towner and trying to buy liquor for a friends’ weekend during the Fourth of July. Pennsylvania and Utah are repeatedly sited as having the most archaic liquor laws.
For decades, there have been various attempts to reform or privatize the control of liquor in the state. And in fairness, the PLCB has attempted to respond to that criticism. Gone are the austere state stores with clerks stationed behind counters akin to the Post Office to whom you gave your liquor order and who then pulled the bottles from the shelves. Today, the PLCB has opened some posh Fine Wines & Spirits stores and has begun selling smaller quantities of beer in establishments like certain Giant Eagles. However, there have also been stumbles. The wine kiosks were a bust. You could often see the monitor of the kiosk sleeping in a chair next to it at the grocery store.
The way liquor has been regulated in Pennsylvania has been a festering sore. Time will only tell if these attempts to update the system are the full solution or merely a bandage that will only result in more dissatisfaction with the PLCB system and will finally lead the legislature to free liquor from Governor Pinchot’s antiquated control.