*Update* in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has states from California to Maine passing emergency executive orders allowing alcohol sales to go. Whether any of them will turn into real laws when the crisis ends remains to be seen. This article looks at the only places in the country that allowed drive-thru cocktails before COVID-19 (Louisiana and Southeast Texas) and the legal loopholes that let it happen.
I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but it’s not a very good idea to drink and drive. Tends to slow the fine motor skills, impact judgment, and dull the senses. All of these are, as I understand it, important to operating a two-ton hunk of metal at high speeds. Which is why it seems like a good idea to encourage people to leave their cars before consuming any alcohol. Which is why it seems odd that there are two states in this country where one can patronize a drive-thru frozen daiquiri bar.
One of them, you might not be surprised to hear, is Louisiana. The other is its neighbor, Texas. You pull up, you order, and the employee hands you your frozen drink—a daiquiri, margarita, pina colada, mudslide, etc—in a Styrofoam cup, with a little piece of tape over the straw hole, or a heat-sealed plastic bag around it. They also hand you a straw.
In Louisiana, the first of these began appearing in the early 1980s, and they have quickly become a staple, especially in the New Orleans suburbs. The legality of these establishments is evident and purposeful: the state’s open container law specifically exempts it, saying:
“Open alcoholic beverage container” shall not mean any bottle, can, or other receptacle that contains a frozen alcoholic beverage unless the lid is removed, a straw protrudes therefrom, or the contents of the receptacle have been partially removed.[i]
In Texas it’s a little more complicated. There is a type of license—the BG, or Wine and Beer Retailer’s Permit—that allows for the sale of beer and wine, up to 17% ABV, on or off the premises.[ii] The law does not specify that the beverage has to be in its original container, or what kind of container it must be in at all. The Texas Alcoholic Control Board has determined that a Styrofoam cup in a heat-sealed plastic bag is not an “open” container, so it flies. This license type is not available everywhere, and there are only a few dozen of these around the state, mostly in the Houston area.
You’ll notice that that permit only allows the sale of wine and beer, ingredients not normally found in a daiquiri or margarita. Sellers get around that by using “a flavorless wine base that is later flavored to taste like rum, tequila, or whatever you need.”[iii] Sounds super appetizing.
Once you’ve got your frozen drink, you’re supposed to wait until you get where you’re going to drink it. If you peel off the tape, insert the straw, or otherwise “remove” the contents of the cup, you’re in violation of open container laws. But these are often blank cups, which could easily have a milkshake or a soda in them; it’s not exactly ideal from an enforcement perspective.
But if you listen to a few enthusiastic writers on food and
drink blogs, these laws are something to be celebrated. It’s a rather extreme
example of a wider debate about access to alcohol that extends to drive-thru
package stores (which are far more prevalent, available in nearly half of
states), grocery store sales, and bar or liquor store quotas. Studies tying alcohol
access to negative impacts like DWIs compete with a personal liberty argument
in a classically American clash between community benefit and individual
freedom. The big picture, long-term trend has been towards limiting access, but
that’s been a slow and uneven shift. State-level regulation allows for
variation based on regional customs, and in this laid-back, hard-partying
corner of the country, that means drive-thru daiquiris. Every so often, someone
at the national or state level makes noise about banning them, but for now, the
bon temps continue to rouler.