Late Saturday night, the Illinois House joined the Senate and overwhelmingly voted in favor of allowing bars and restaurants to sell to-go cocktails, a measure that could enable bars to survive until the state lifts the COVID-19 closures. While some bars have quietly sold margaritas in plastic carafes and cocktails in disposable cups for carryout, that comes with the risk of fines. Bars in high-profile locations already struggling due to state-mandated closures worried they couldn’t be discrete and would trigger enforcement.
Now restaurant and bars won’t have to worry about fines, as long as the drinks are in sealed, tamper-resistant containers and are continued to be stored in a vehicle’s trunk during delivery. The bill still needs Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature, and it’s unclear when that will happen. During his Tuesday COVID-19 briefing, Pritzker said he was “so glad that that passed.”
“I’ll sign it as soon as it comes to my desk,” Pritzker says.
The law would last only for a year. Many have criticized the state law, the Liquor Control Act of 1934, as antiquated. For some in Chicago’s hospitality industry, it was especially embarrassing as lawmakers in other states quickly moved to legalize to-go cocktails to help bar and restaurant owners. They felt the state dragged its feet over the last two months.
The taverns especially harmed were the ones that sell beverages with fancy ices, infused liquors, and fresh fruit — the type of drinks that can’t easily be recreated at home. Cocktails are how bars like Kumiko, Violet Hour, MONEYGUN, and the Darling make their money. Cocktails have higher margins than beer or wine, and without their bread and butter, the future of those bars could be in jeopardy.
The state did make an emergency order during the pandemic to provide restaurants and bars with a potential revenue stream by allowing to-go sales of packaged goods and kits for home cocktails. However, mixed drinks not in their original containers were viewed as a public health threat: “allowing the sale of premixed cocktails would increase the likelihood of impaired or intoxicated driving,” an Illinois Liquor Control Commission statement issued in March reads.
Beer in growlers remain legal. But currently, if a bar or restaurant sells margaritas or any other alcoholic drink in pitchers to go, the state and city could fine them. The state points to various sanitation requirements for growlers, arguing they can’t impose those same mandates on vessels like red Solo cups.
The bill doesn’t permit third parties like Grubhub, Uber Eats, or DashDash deliver the drinks (they can still deliver beer and wine). To-go drink delivery will have to be handled by a restaurant or bar’s in-house staff. The law also allows local municipalities to opt out if they don’t want to allow its bars and restaurants to sell to-go drinks.
That means even after Pritzker signs, Chicago will need city officials to take action to legalize the measure. The city legislation in question involves the consumption of alcohol on premises. A statement provided by a city spokesperson reads that officials are exploring changes to its municipal code to allow to-go cocktail sales.
“We look forward to working with aldermen, industry leaders, and other stakeholders in this latest effort to provide a new stream of much-needed revenue for the hundreds of bars, breweries, and restaurants across Chicago who have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 crisis,” a portion of the city’s statement reads.
Bartender Julia Momose has been the most outspoken member of Chicago’s bar industry on the matter. She’s a partner at Kumiko, a unique West Loop cocktail that serves cocktail flights inspired by Japanese omakase. Momose helped launch the Cocktails for Hope campaign that has been working with lawmakers to change. Momose, an Eater Young Gun alum, says no one has given her an indication when to-go drinks would be legal in Chicago.
Not every bar owner will launch a to-go drink menu. Some feels they won’t bring in profits. But Momose pushed for a change to give bar owners a choice and a chance to connect with customers they haven’t seen since the COVID-19 outbreak began.