I've had the pleasure of going to Utah for a few conferences over the years (all Novell-related, actually) and due to the state's unique history with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, its liquor laws are some of the strangest I've ever encountered.

It used to be that if you went to a restaurant that serves alcohol, and would like to have a drink with dinner, the server could not ask you if you'd like a drink. They had to ask ask something like, "Would you care for a beverage?'" You see, there couldn't be the perception that they're even thinking about trying to offer you anything with alcohol. You had to say that you wanted to know what they have for beers on tap, or to see the wine list, or some such, before they can talk about booze.

In late 2001, some wacky free speech advocates got that overturned, so now the server can offer you a drink. Just in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics, I'd say.

Then, once you get your drink, if you'd like another drink, you can order it, but the server cannot put it on the table until you finish the first drink and it is removed from the table. I think this is to lower the likelihood that some pleasant Mormon family sitting next to you does not have to be exposed to the horror of seeing you doing a two-fisted drink slam.

Now, the rules are different if you're in a bar. Well, let me say first that there's no such thing as a "bar" in Utah--establishments that principally serve alcohol are all private clubs and to enter one you must be a member, or be the guest of a member. Now, most hotels can include membership in the hotel bar as part of your room rate, so you're covered there. But if you go to, say downtown Salt Lake City and want to go to the Port o' Call, say, you'll need to give them your name and pay for a membership, or get someone to vouch for you.

Once in the bar--er, club, you can order wine, beer, or mixed drinks to your heart's content. There's a catch, however--if you buy a mixed drink, by law the glass must contain exactly one serving of alcohol, which is metered out by special dispenser spouts on all the mixed drink bottles. This is actually good in that it means the bar can't water your drinks down, but it does mean if you want to order a double, you will get two glasses from the bar. Now, when you get them, you're allowed to pour the sidecar into the main glass, and hand it back to the server or bartender, but they're not allowed to do it for you. The extreme example is The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Long Island Iced Tea,

There also seems to be a provision for a restaurant to have a bar area where you can order drinks (it may only be beer or wine) without having to order food. You see, there's another catch--in a restaurant, you have to have the clear intention of ordering food before you can order drinks. Now, you don't by law have to actually order the food, but you have to at least sit down and say something like "Can we see some menus? And, oh, by the way, gimme a pint."

Once at Squatters Brewpub in Salt Lake City we quizzed a waitress for about half an hour on the laws, and consequently she's the source of most of this information. I then asked, "So, do they actually send people out to make sure you do all of this correctly?" and she said, "Yes, yes they do. In fact, you could be doing that right now." A year later she was a manager there. Oh, by the way, did I mention that a brewpub's beer brewed and consumed on the premises must be 3.2 beer? Yup. Basically, only the state can sell any beverage with an alcohol content greater than 3.2 percent, unless you're in a private club.

Oh yeah. Utah also only has state-owned liquor stores, where you must go to buy not only liquor, but beer and wine. There's 3.2 beer in the grocery stores, but you can't buy it on Sunday. And, of course, these liquor stores aren't open on Sundays. The other weird thing about the state liquor stores is that everything they sell has more than 3.2 percent alcohol in it--no mixers, no snacks, no cigarettes. You see, selling those would cut into the business of stores who can sell that stuff.

The world gets to see Utah in all of its byzantine glory this February with the 2002 Winter Olympics. Already I've seen references to Europeans in particular complaining both about the difficulty of getting a drink as well as the weak beer. To be fair, the brewpub beer brewed at 3.2 percent is really quite good, you can drink more of it, and if you're not acclimated to the altitude (especially in Park City) it will still pack a whallop.