Where did Virginia’s food-to-liquor ratio come from and does it still serve a purpose?

By: - October 2, 2018 6:01 am

John Lanahan, president of Richmond Hotels Incorporated and Charles Burtner, executive manager, Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, share a drink at the John Marshall Hotel in Richmond on Dec. 17, 1968, to celebrate the first day of liquor by the drink in Virginia. V.86.153.620, [First Day of Liquor by the Drink], December 17, 1968, The Valentine

Why aren’t there proper bars in Virginia? You can thank Prohibitionists for that.

While Virginia’s regulatory feelings about alcohol have ebbed and flowed, some of the laws that remain on the books today are vestiges of the Prohibition movement of the early 20th century that said alcohol was the source of a host of social ills, including homelessness, poverty, divorce and others.

Some lawmakers are trying to finally break that hold almost a century later.

The Senate’s Subcommittee on Alcoholic Beverage Control has been wrestling all summer with possible changes to Virginia’s mixed-drink ratio law, a mechanism that makes it impossible to have full-fledged bars in the state — though some business owners have no problem calling their business a bar.

The law is antiquated, steeped in old-fashioned concerns and limits what could be an economic boon for Virginia, said Christopher Saladino, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who is studying Virginia alcohol law and the craft economy.

“There has been increasingly more discussion in the legislature to try to change this, but there’s still some of the same resistance,” he said.

Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, has tried in each of the past three years to lower the percentage of a restaurant’s sales that must come from food to free up room for liquor sales, but his bills don’t get enough traction to pass.

Now, a Senate subcommittee under his leadership is considering other options, like limiting liquor sales by volume, not dollar amounts.

It could be the fix for restaurants that specialize in high-end, rare spirits, businesses that have become more popular in recent years.

Those kinds of operations walk a tightrope most of the time, unsure if they can balance a competitively priced food menu to make up for their specialty liquors, which can run thousands of dollars per drink.

“We do need to find a way to accommodate for those business models,” DeSteph said last month at a subcommittee meeting. “We have more of that coming and we have to figure out how to deal with that.”

And allowing those businesses to flourish could pad the state’s bank accounts.

“What’s the feeling you get from a $6,000 shot?” Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, asked at a subcommittee meeting last month.

“$300 in taxes,” DeSteph answered.

From Prohibition to the ABC

The ratio is the vehicle that effectively bans all-out bars in Virginia by prohibiting businesses that only serve liquor.  

Spirits got a bad reputation thanks in part to the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The union formed in Ohio specifically to ban alcohol. The all-women group, still active today, was known to hold “pray-ins” at saloons, and ran educational and political campaigns that helped give rise to the national Prohibition movement.

The WCTU’s effort in the early 20th century paid off in Virginia: In 1916, voters decided to become a dry state by way of a referendum. Alexandria, Norfolk, Williamsburg and Richmond voted to stay wet, according to the Library of Virginia. 

In 1920,  the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came into effect, starting nationwide Prohibition, which banned the manufacturing, selling and transporting of liquor across the country until 1933 when it was repealed.

Virginia, however, was never truly a dry state. The long coastline made it easy for rum runners to smuggle booze in, and it was in high demand in places like Norfolk, with its concentration of thirsty sailors. 

The 18th Amendment was repealed with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933. When Virginia ratified the amendment that year, voters also decided the state should monitor the sale of alcohol. That system was supposed help to put bootleggers out of business and prevent the return of saloons, a 1934 news story from The Virginian-Pilot said.

And so the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was created and the state got laws on the books that curbed drinking alcohol outside of the home. Liquor could still be bought in state-owned stores and beer and wine could be bought from privately owned stores. 

The move was popular in Hampton Roads, and former Norfolk Mayor S. Heth Tyler was named the first chairman of the ABC Commission. He didn’t know much about what his role would be, he told The Virginian-Pilot in 1934, but he planned to set liquor prices to put bootleggers out of business.

‘The business meets its ratio and I’m legally drunk’

By the 1960s, lawmakers started looking at ways to allow drinking in public establishments.

Norfolk delegates Henry Howell Jr. and Calvin Childress introduced a bill in 1960 to allow localities to decide if they wanted to let restaurants serve alcohol, according to a 1961 story from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Childress and Howell thought booze would help the tourism industry — an important economic driver in their area — and promote temperance, since one drink would have less alcohol than a bottle, Howell wrote in a opinion piece for the Times-Dispatch in 1961.

Virginia would tax alcohol not to fill its piggybank, but “as a means of social control,” an accompanying story in the Times-Dispatch said. ABC now contributes almost half-a-billion dollars to the state’s coffers each year.

Their proposal got support — even from some religious leaders — but not enough in the legislature to pass. Not everyone was sold on the economic benefits of public drinking.

“It may be argued that a hotel or restaurant which serves distilled liquors at tables is not a saloon in the common acceptance of the word, but really the only difference is that the bar and the swinging doors are missing,” a 1961 column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch said.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the architects of the Prohibition movement, said loosening rules on liquor would lead to car accidents, alcoholism and a new resurgence of saloons.

A spokesperson for the WCTU, T Roy. Jarrett, said in a 1961 legislative meeting that Norfolk, which appeared to be leading the charge to loosen liquor laws, didn’t need more liquor. Norfolk needed “more wholesome recreation places where the sailors can purchase fruit juice,” Jarrett said, according to the Times-Dispatch.

In 1968, Virginia finally passed a law that allowed restaurants to serve alcohol, but there were strings attached: 51 percent of a restaurant’s sales had to be food, not counting appetizers and desserts, and beer and wine counted toward alcohol sales.

The law gave localities the power to decide if they wanted to allow liquor licenses at restaurants, which is why Virginia still has 19 dry counties where liquor can only be purchased and consumed at home, according to current ABC records.

In 1980, Virginia again tried to get out from under Prohibition-era rules and relaxed on its definitions of food and alcohol. Beer and wine no longer counted as alcohol, and restaurant owners could count desserts and appetizers as food.

The current mixed-drink ratio was created in that year too, now requiring only 45 percent of total sales to come from food.

It’s remained the same since, and it’s hard to see how the regulatory scheme in place meets the Prohibitionists’ intentions anymore, Saladino said.

“I could drink six shots of Fireball and get a $15 burger and the business meets its ratio and I’m legally drunk,” he said. “These (laws) are all supposed to do certain things, but I think lawmakers on both sides are willing to accept they really don’t.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.