Now is the Time to Modernize NY’s Prohibition-Era Alcohol and Beverage Laws

By Scott Wexler | January 25, 2024

In a legislative battle, there are always two sides: a side fighting for change and a side advocating for the status quo. Pushing for change is more complicated because there is always some level of fear associated with change.

Elected officials considering policy change are trying to understand the impact of implementing a particular piece of legislation on different constituencies. Often, it is easier just to keep things the same – even if that is not necessarily the right thing for the state or the industry they are responsible for regulating.

However, if we let that fear cripple us, we end up with an outdated regulatory system that doesn’t benefit today’s industry, and that is exactly what is happening with New York’s Alcohol Beverage and Control (ABC) laws.

The current structure of our ABC policies was developed during the Prohibition era, and they have barely been updated since. Every time the legislature considers modernization, the entrenched industry interests orchestrate a campaign claiming that the world would fall apart if small, reasonable changes to these outdated laws were made.

We experienced this when cocktails-to-go were legalized temporarily to help restaurants through the economic distress of the pandemic and the post-pandemic recovery. The “old guard” acted as if the entire beverage industry would collapse, New Yorkers would no longer be able to drink responsibly, and restaurants would take over the liquor industry, putting local liquor stores out of business.

None of that happened. In fact, cocktails-to-go is a wildly successful policy that should be made permanent. We applaud Governor Hochul for her leadership in advancing cocktails-to-go and for starting the conversation this year by including several ABC reform recommendations in her executive budget proposal.

In 2022, the legislature and Governor collaborated in the formation of a commission tasked with evaluating and recommending changes to New York’s outdated ABC laws. The commission was made up of a diverse array of industry experts who agreed that there are changes that need to be made by the legislature.

Now, it’s in the hands of New York’s legislature to enact change, such as making it permissible for small restaurants and taverns to purchase limited quantities of wine and spirits from liquor stores in order to restock their inventory in between deliveries and to save thousands of dollars annually in surcharges for placing small orders. Applicants for liquor licenses in New York City should have the same opportunity to obtain temporary licenses for alcohol sales as applicants in the rest of the state. The 200 and 500-foot rules should be modified to avoid extended delays in licensing when local communities do not object to locating new bars and restaurants in their neighborhoods.

To change our Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) laws this session, elected officials will need to sort through the fears expressed by the defenders of the status quo and find the courage of their convictions to do what’s right for the state – not the narrow interests of a few.

I’d suggest they sample a glass of whiskey from one of the state’s many local distilleries to help them consider this, but, unfortunately, many of New York’s great products aren’t available to New Yorkers because of our self-crippling ABC laws. To change that, we need a new regulatory system that represents our diverse, modern industry and empowers New York’s businesses to grow.

After 100 years, let’s embrace change in this industry. Let’s Cheers to Change.

Scott Wexler is the Executive Director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association.