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Oregon’s Fight for To-Go Cocktails, Explained

Bartenders have been pushing to legalize to-go cocktails in Oregon, a lifeline for bars struggling with the financial impact of COVID-19

Various mason jars with red, purple, and orange liquids sit on a white marble countertop with limes
To-go cocktails at Rally Pizza in Vancouver, where to-go cocktails are legal
Rally Pizza/Official
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

When Gov. Kate Brown shut down restaurants across the state, Rum Club bartender Micah Anderson was absolutely supportive. “If you’re in food and drink, you’re literally putting your life on the line,” he says. “You’re interacting with new people every day; you don’t know where they’ve been.”

From there, however, Anderson and other bartenders began thinking about the obvious next step: How do you keep bars and restaurants afloat in the interim? For bartenders across the state, to-go cocktails have seemed like a potential safety raft during an indefinite, tumultuous period of instability for bars. “This was something we saw as a no-brainer,” Anderson says. “It gives us revenue and it doesn’t cost the state anything.”

What many bartenders see as a relatively low-lift change could be crucial for survival, in their eyes; bar owners in cities with legalized to-go cocktail sales have described those sales as a “game-changer,” considering the extra boost during a period where many businesses are losing serious revenue. “The number one thing is that it will create a safe, constant revenue stream, especially for places that currently can’t open under phase one or phase two, or people who are open but are only operating at 25 percent capacity,” Anderson says. “Because bars and restaurants already operate at a very slim profit margin — a 10 to 15 percent profit margin — when you’re talking about a 20 percent loss in revenue, you’re talking about hemorrhaging money. Without this extra revenue stream, we’re just getting closer and closer to watching bar after bar close.”

Over the last few months, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has eased certain restrictions — restaurants and bars can sell bottles of beer and wine to-go and via delivery, and even distillers can deliver hard spirits or cocktail kits (just not restaurants and bars). But as states across the country legalized to-go and delivery cocktail sales from bars and restaurants, Oregon has held off. Bartenders have circulated petitions to legalize to-go cocktails, have spoken to the press, and posted Instagram stories asking people to call legislators. But according to state officials, it’ll take more than an executive order or a statement from the OLCC to let local bars sell takeout cocktails.

Earlier this year, a spokesperson from the OLCC told the Oregonian that part of the reason the OLCC can’t allow hard spirit delivery from bars has to do with the way Oregon’s laws are written: The statute states that “all alcoholic beverages sold under a full on-premises sales license must be consumed on the licensed premises.” For that reason, the legalization of to-go cocktails would have to happen at the legislative level.

Back in April, OLCC spokesman Bryant Haley said that, theoretically, if the Oregon Legislature were to hold a special session, it could hit the agenda. Months later, Brown has called a special legislative session for August 10, to address the budget gap, but there’s no agenda item dedicated to to-go cocktails. Anderson posted on Instagram asking people to call legislators, asking them to prioritize this issue. “There are a lot of places in the state that aren’t going to last without something like this happening,” he says in the video. “Let’s get our voices heard, and let’s get our elected officials to make this happen for us.”

Oregon State Representative Rob Nosse, who represents Northeast and Southeast Portland, is one of the elected officials who wants to help make to-go cocktails happen in Oregon. Beast chef and owner Naomi Pomeroy reached out to him about writing a bill to allow the legalization of to-go cocktails. He has a bill drafted and ready to go, setting a limit of two drinks per order and requiring customers to order food with their drinks. Other legislators, like Representative Janelle Bynum of Clackamas, have come out in support of the legalization of to-go drinks.

Still, he says he’s not sure if it’ll make the floor during the special session. The session’s focus is meant to stick to the budget, and the little room left for other bills is in high demand. “There are a lot of people who want to introduce policy bills,” Nosse says. “So if you let somebody [introduce] a bill about worker’s compensation or police reform — where does it stop? I think, candidly, the speaker, the senate president, the governor, have a tough job of navigating which bills to introduce. I hope my bill makes it, I hope I have support, but I haven’t made a strong enough case yet to say that this is enough to do now.”

Nosse is recommending those interested in seeing this bill introduced reach out to their local legislators, to show interest and potentially drum up more support from representatives and senators. “It’s not anybody’s top priority. Nobody thinks that this will make or break anything,” Nosse says. “But come on, can’t we do this?”

Some recovery advocates have argued that a bill like this could be harmful, creating easy access to alcohol when people are already susceptible to relapse. For instance, when the Oregon Liquor Control Commission eased restrictions on alcohol delivery, Oregon state representative Tawna Sanchez wrote a letter to the Joint Special Committee on Coronavirus Response, urging the committee to reverse the easements. Sanchez’s argument is that the loss of in-person support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, combined with the lack of access to statewide resources or the technology needed for online meetings, make this period particularly dangerous for those fighting to stay sober. “While we appreciate these efforts are being made to mitigate the adverse financial impacts that Oregon’s restaurants, bars and wineries are facing, the OLCC actions appear to be blind to the public health consequences of increased alcohol sales,” Sanchez writes.

Anderson argues that a bill supporting to-go cocktails from bars and restaurants may, in fact, be more responsible than other methods of alcohol sales currently legal in Oregon. “As a bartender, as someone who works in hospitality, we’re very sensitive to alcohol abuse issue — it’s something we deal with on a daily basis, monitoring how much people drink,” he says. “If you walk into a bar to order a drink, you’ll have to get food, I’ll be vetting you when you come in, you have to come in sober, and open container laws still apply.”

Nosse says he should hear whether his bill will be introduced this week. In the meantime, as COVID-19 cases surge and with no end in sight, Oregon’s bartenders are still waiting for relief.

Help Us Get Cocktails To Go On The Special Session Agenda [PIRA]
‘We’re not surviving:’ Portland bars, restaurants ask to sell cocktails to-go [O]
How Six Austin Restaurants and Bars Developed Their To-Go Cocktail Programs [Eater Austin]