Cocktails to go are now legal in Pennsylvania, after legislation temporarily relaxing the state’s strict liquor laws passed the state Senate last week and was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday. This is a major change for a state that only starting allowing grocery stores to sell beer a few years ago. It’s effective immediately.
Restaurants with the right permits can already sell beer and wine for takeout.
Under the new law, restaurants, bars, and hotels who hold R or H liquor licenses, lost more than 25 percent of their average monthly sales, and also sell prepared meals for takeout can sell mixed drinks to go in sealed containers of at least 4 ounces and no more than 64 ounces for pickup only, not delivery. Customers don’t have to buy food when buying drinks. The 4-ounce minimum equates to no shots.
The drinks must be mixed on the premises and must be a combo of spirits and mixers, which means bars who want to sell a martini need to add a splash of olive juice to the gin and vermouth to stay within the letter of the law.
Wine in to-go cups is not included in this, and no cocktails made with wine either, so sangria is off the table. The thinking behind that is many restaurants and bars previously invested in an expanded wine permit allowing them to sell takeout wine and it wouldn’t be fair to them to let everyone do it.
Sales of takeout cocktails are cut off at 11 p.m., and any venue selling takeout cocktails has to get an electronic ID scanner within 60 days to check customers’ ages.
Restaurants also need to post a sign that reminds customers drinking and driving is still illegal, in case anyone forgot. The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association has a sample sign on its website.
Someone who holds a liquor license can sell liquor to someone else who holds a liquor license, which allows a restaurant or bar that is staying closed, or deciding to stick with food, not cocktails, to make money by selling some of its stock to another venue. But the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board needs to be notified in writing.
This is all intended to give a small boost to restaurants and bars that are hemorrhaging money during the COVID-19 closures. Restaurants typically make about 30 percent of revenue from alcohol sales, and for bars it’s much higher. Last month, a survey found that the Pennsylvania restaurant industry anticipated losing more than $1.8 billion in sales by the end of April.
But the change is not meant to be permanent. Once a restaurant is operating at 60 percent of its occupancy capacity or more, it can no longer sell cocktails to go.
The state House voted to make takeout cocktails legal three weeks ago. And while some restaurants seemed unaware that was just the first step and the law was not yet changed, most had been anxiously waiting for the bill to move forward. Multiple Philly restaurants that closed in mid-March when COVID-19 hit the area told Eater they’ve been busy over the last couple of weeks prepping to reopen with takeout food and cocktails.