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Off the Res Ellen Thompson
Bigger Is Better
How tiny bottles got booted out of South Carolina's bars.
FOR A BAR IN COLUMBIA, S.C., the laidback state capital where a fitted baseball cap borders on overdressing, Delaney's Speakeasy takes itself very seriously. The staff wear vests and black ties, the long, oak bar houses display cases of cigars, and the drink menu is heavy on single malt scotch and Belgian lambic. On a Saturday this winter, as a jazz band did justice to a Coltrane standard, it would have been easy to imagine you were far from South Carolina, perhaps in one of Manhattan's tonier drinking establishments.
But a glance at the liquor shelf above the bar would have confirmed your location in South Carolina. The popular brands were all thererows of Absolut, Jose Cuervo, and Bacardibut the bottles were smaller. Much smaller. Until January, the Speakeasy, and every other bar in the state, was required by law to serve its liquor from minibottles, the 50-milliliter miniatures that are mainstays of airplanes and hotel minibars.
A curio of the 1960s and '70s, laws requiring that liquor flow from minibottles were tried in nine states. They were rooted in the idea that serving patrons from smaller containers would mean serving them less alcohol. But what doomed the minibottle was its size. This year when South Carolinians become the last to jettison the minibottle, the average size of a shot of liquor nationwide was 1.25 ounces, while the minibottles, which the law envisioned would be equal to a shot, held 1.7 ounces35 percent more alcohol. Enacted to slow the sale of alcohol, the minibottle law had inadvertently made sure that South Carolina poured the nation's stiffest drinks.
LIKE MANY OTHER SOUTHERN STATES, South Carolina greeted the federal repeal of Prohibition in 1933 not with the tapping of kegs and uncorking of bottles, but with its own state temperance laws. In the Palmetto state, liquor couldn't be sold legally in bars or restaurants, though customers were permitted to bring their own flasks of liquor to commercial establishments, an accommodation that gave rise to brown-bagging. When the moderate Democrat John West became governor in 1971, he realized that brown-bagging was an unseemly practice that did little to curb drinking. Patrons wielding their own flasks were more likely to get stumbling drunk than those forced to order from a bar. Plus, West figured that alcohol sales at bars and restaurantsaside from being taxed by the statecould also help boost tourism, South Carolina's largest industry.
But the prospect of passing legislation allowing liquor sales seemed dim. South Carolina had opted for Prohibition even before it became a federal mandate and had long been a place where religious conservatives, particularly Baptists, the state's largest denomination and a powerful political constituency, regarded alcohol as a sin. South Carolina seemed destined to stay dry.
That was until the governor seized upon the minibottlea compromise container that he figured liquor opponents could stomach. Though many Baptists remained unmoved, West won over other religious conservatives by pointing out that the minibottle was much smaller than the quarts of liquor that patrons had long been carrying into restaurants. West even got a collection of ministers to stump for his minibottle campaign. The idea received relentless editorial support from the capital's daily newspaper, The State, and when it was turned into law, the paper's late publisher, Ben Morris, included that achievement among his greatest. The minibottle law hit the books (and bars) in 1973. It stipulated that liquor could be served only from minibottles, which were 1.5-ounce containers, the same size as an industry-standard free-pour shot, to bartenders, a jigger.
In 1980, though, a brief American infatuation with the metric system re-jiggered things. Distilleries bought into the merits of the metric, and minibottle makers settled on a nice round number: 50 milliliters, which equaled 1.7 ounces. The move made the bottles a bit bigger, and it came at the same time that the size of the standard shot was shrinking. Facing new pressure from advocacy groups formed to combat drunken driving, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which was founded in 1980, bar and restaurant trade groups acquiesced to calls to shrink the shot. By the late 1980s, the standard around the country had shrunk to 1.25 ounces. For states serving booze from minibottles, the ground had shifted beneath them. By 1991, when Utah banished the minibottles from the bar, only South Carolina remained loyal to the little container.
Support, however, was dwindling. In 2001, when State Senator Robert W. Hayes Jr. sponsored legislation to scrap the minibottle law, he found backing across a wide spectrum. Anti-drinking groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the tourism industry, and even the Sierra Club (minibottles are not recycled) all cheered plans to scuttle the minibottle and adopt the so-called free pour. There was some pushback, however. The minibottle law had created wealthy minibottle advocates. In South Carolina, keeping bars stocked with tiny bottles fell to four liquor wholesalers who contracted with 58 minibottle distributors to peddle about 70 million minibottles a year. That group feared the day when conventional-sized bottles, which can be purchased at nearly 900 retail stores in South Carolina, would be approved for use at bars. "It was a monopoly they had, and they wanted to protect it," said Hayes.
And protect it they did, until 2004, when those looking to smite the minibottle received an important blessing. The South Carolina Baptist Convention, perhaps the most powerful interest group in the state, had for years judged drinking a sin, whatever the size of the container. Now, the Baptists acknowledged that the tiny bottle made for stronger drinks and pronounced the proposed plan for free pours the "lesser of two evils." And with the church behind it, a referendum was passed easily by voters and gave bars the chance to super-size their stock in 2006.
BACK AT DELANEY'S, that's what co-owner Jeff Whitt is doing. Virtually all South Carolina bars are expected to switch this year, since the profit margins on larger bottles are higher. Wooden, six-foot tall minibottle racks have been a signature of South Carolinian barsand Whitt has ripped out his. As he works through the last of his cache of minibottles, though, Whitt's had trouble figuring out how to organize the bigger bottles that clutter the shelves behind his bar. And like other bar owners, he's also struggling to keep tabs on his inventory. "For all their faults, at least with the minibottles you knew where your booze was going, since every drop was accounted for," Whitt said.
But nobody's struggling more than the state's barkeeps. Pouring booze from minibottles made multiliquor drinks expensive and scarce; bartenders tended not to pour drinks much more exotic than a gin and tonic. Now that's all changing, and drinkers are getting experimental. Bartenders, those purveyors of sin, are spending much of their time re-learning the craft, burying their heads in recipe books, known in the trade as Bibles.