To Drink or Not to Drink?

The Evolution of Alcohol Laws in North Carolina

Photo by Johann Trasch on Unsplash.

Picture this: you’re a curious traveler exploring the charming corners of North Carolina, and you eagerly settle in for a delightful weekend brunch featuring the region’s infamous southern biscuits and gravy.   With a craving for a refreshing mimosa, you confidently order a bottomless glass, only to be met with a perplexed gaze from the server.  As it turns out, these “bottomless brunches” you so desperately crave, are not just a rare find in the state—they are illegal.

What newcomers to the state, and even some residents, might not be aware of is North Carolina’s peculiar laws surrounding alcohol.  The state’s alcohol laws are stricter than most and can be traced to a variety of influences both pre-prohibition and post.  The evolvement of the state’s laws surrounding alcohol manufacturing, consumption, and use, was largely influenced by an intersection of religion, race, and politics.  Only in the last few years has the state worked to catch up with its neighboring state laws to ensure Sunday brunch-goers, happy hour enthusiasts, and craft beer aficionados feel more at home.

Sobriety is Next To … Godliness?

In the early 1800s, about 100 years before the passage of the 18th Amendment outlawing alcohol consumption nationwide, North Carolinians were way ahead of the curve.   Many attitudes in North Carolina were already in support of living an alcohol-free lifestyle.  These views can be traced back to a variety of influences, however, the earliest anti-alcohol advocates were found within the church.

Baptist and Methodist churches were the original leaders of the prohibition efforts.  They shared an outlook on the “evils” of alcohol, which was commonly referred to in their Baptist and Methodist circles as “Demon Rum.”  Church communities viewed alcohol consumption as a societal ill, often equating alcohol use with the devil. Saloons were viewed as a source of corruption within society, and alcohol use provided the church with a scapegoat to blame for social and political controversies at the time.  Anecdotal stories within these communities facilitated the belief that alcohol inflicted trauma upon individuals and was to blame for any strife within families.

In 1833, with the help of Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, the city of Wilmington formed the first North Carolina Temperance Society (“the Society”).  Temperance, the practice of abstaining from alcohol, started to increase in popularity.  Members of the Society gave lectures around the state, spreading a passionate anti-alcohol message, and citing alcohol as a “national evil.”  The Society declared that consumption of alcohol “fil[ed] prisons with dishonest, weak, and wicked criminals.”  The Society remained active in the state throughout the 1850s.

Anti-Alcohol Messaging in Local Politics

Although religion claimed the earliest influence on anti-alcohol views, it soon spread to state and local politics.  Post-Civil War, dry forces in North Carolina discovered that anti-alcohol viewpoints, along with messaging of White supremacy, could prove successful in uniting the Democratic party in the South.  At the time, North Carolinian democratic leaders desperately wanted to maintain a system of White supremacy. Democrats worried about splitting White voters over those who supported Jim Crow and remained furious temperance advocates.  To combat the issue, the Democratic party combined both issues and pushed forward on anti-liquor and racist messaging.

On the forefront of that crusade was U.S. Senator Furnifold M. Simmons from North Carolina, a primary leader in the 1898 White supremacy campaign in the state.  He commonly referred to liquor distilleries as “Republican recruiting stations,” enticing the White temperance voters to vote for the Democratic Party.  Additionally, another white supremacist, Josephus Daniels, the editor and publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer, advocated for prohibition through the local newspaper by publishing both racist editorials and anti-liquor viewpoints.  Later, as secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, Daniels used his position to ban alcoholic beverages from U.S. Navy vessels and bases, five years before national prohibition took place.  North Carolinians were on the cutting edge of cutting liquor.

In 1868, the Democrats successfully enacted Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation.  White supremacy had won out, and the worry of splitting white democrats over the liquor issue was no longer at play.  It appeared anti-alcohol views had started to soften; however, anti-alcohol and temperance had not fully run its course.  In 1902, U.S. Senator Josiah W. Bailey from North Carolina organized the state’s first Anti-Saloon League, developing several chapters throughout the state.  In 1903, the Watts Act made its way through the state’s legislature, banning the manufacture and sale of “spiritous liquors” outside incorporated towns.  Three years later, the Ward Act expanded the Watts Act by banning “spiritous liquors” in North Carolina towns with populations of fewer than 1,000 people; effectively introducing prohibition into 68 of the state’s 100 counties.

Prohibition in North Carolina, Before it Was Cool

In 1907, as anti-alcohol views continued to ferment.  Carrie A. Nation, an aggressive anti-alcohol advocate and forceful temperance crusader, stormed the state.  Nation traveled to local saloons and used hatchets to break windows and alcohol bottles.  In the summer of that year, she voyaged to over half a dozen cities in the state, warning North Carolinians that alcohol use led to moral decay.  Despite Nation’s aggressive speeches and destructive tactics, she drew crowds of up to 4,000 supporters, allowing her to use her platform to raise funds for “home[s] for drunkards’ wives.”  During her tenure in North Carolina, she called Salisbury a “hell hole,” with saloons primarily to blame for the poverty in the city.  Saloons, according to Nation, were a “ticket office to hell.”

Less than one year after Nation’s activism, with the help of Governor Robert Glenn (and backed by the Baptist State Convention and North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church), North Carolina passed a state prohibition bill.  It was the first state to do so, 11 years before national prohibition in 1920.

The Prohibition Era: Bootleggers and The Birth of Moonshine

Although North Carolina’s prohibition referendum had passed with nearly a 62% margin, not everyone in the state was committed to living an alcohol-free lifestyle.  Soon after state-wide prohibition took hold, a newfound demand for alcohol produced the practice of bootlegging, the illegal business of smuggling alcohol.  In the early days of bootlegging, North Carolinian bootleggers bought alcohol from neighboring states of Virginia and South Carolina, where alcohol remained legal.  As time went on, the demand for alcohol persisted.  Bootleggers no longer found it sustainable to continue their “rum-running” from state to state.  With a lack of sources to provide for the growing demand for alcohol, they took matters into their own hands.  Enter moonshine.

Moonshine, a white whiskey with extremely high proof, was an efficient way for bootleggers to meet the demands of very thirsty patrons.  Moonshine was made with corn which created both a cheap and vigorously potent drink.  The mountains of North Carolina, far from law enforcement and woven within a difficult terrain, created the perfect shield for moonshiners.  Bootleggers traveled North Carolina routes, going door-to-door delivering moonshine in saddlebags and hot water bottles.  U.S. Federal Revenue Officers proclaimed Wilkes County as the “Moonshine Capital of the World.”

North Carolina’s Resistance to the 21st Amendment

Despite the heavy presence of bootlegging moonshine in rural North Carolina, most North Carolinians maintained their anti-liquor views.  In 1933, a statewide referendum was presented to end prohibition in the state.  North Carolinians emphatically rejected it, 293,494 votes to 120,190.  However, national prohibition was not as strong a force as it once was.  The 21st Amendment was passed on December 5, 1933, ending the nationwide prohibition.  North Carolinian drinkers rejoiced, although their celebrations were short-lived.

The state stayed true to its temperance roots and continued to enforce its state-wide prohibition for several months.  Nonetheless, North Carolina failed to anticipate the effects of keeping the state dry.  Bootleggers continued to run their business.  And this time, they did not have to work as hard to get their hands on alcohol.  Bootleggers began crossing the North Carolina border to buy alcohol in South Carolina and Virginia, which caused the state to lose out on large amounts of money.  By keeping North Carolina dry, they created a lucrative environment for the bootleggers who had easier access to alcohol.

To combat this loss, the N.C. General Assembly responded quickly by creating a slew of bills that slowly introduced the sale of alcohol once again.  One of these bills, the Pasquotank Act, allowed 17 counties to vote on whether to allow liquor sales within their county bounds.  In addition, N.C. legislators created a Governor’s Commission to find a solution to the rampant bootlegging operations.  The commission came back to lawmakers with its result: despite law enforcement’s determined efforts to enforce state-wide prohibition, moonshine continued to be readily obtainable in North Carolina.  The commission realized the state’s continuous rally against alcohol was no longer sustainable; they recommended an outright end to prohibition and the regulation of liquor sales through a state-run monopoly.

The Switch to Government Control

The monopoly, named the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC), was government-owned and operated.  ABC stores were established to accomplish dual initiatives.  The state’s theory was that government-owned stores could avoid the evils of old-time saloons, and would have no incentive to encourage customers to drink more, as private owners of liquor stores might.  Additionally, the management of these stores would be placed under a separate commission, freeing them from any potential conflict within differences of future political administrations.

Today, the ABC manages and controls the buying, selling, manufacturing, and consuming of alcohol in North Carolina.  The commission sets prices for beverages sold in the stores and entirely manages the sale and distribution of alcohol.  Profits from the ABC stores were largely given to local governments.  This helped circumvent the flow of money that had largely left the state in earlier years to neighboring state’s bars, saloons, and liquor stores, and bring it back to North Carolina.  Ultimately, the commission expanded to beer and wine, engulfing the entire alcohol industry as a government-owned and operated business.

Modern Day – The State of Alcohol Laws in North Carolina Today

Although outright prohibition itself is no longer active, the resilient history of anti-liquor views can be found in the state of alcohol laws in North Carolina today.  Happy hour, the practice of discounted drink specials during a set time of the day, is prohibited.  For context, North Carolina is one of eight states in the U.S. to have a state-wide ban on happy hour.  Additionally, it is illegal for bars and restaurants to serve a customer more than one mixed drink at a time.  Brunch enthusiasts looking for bottomless mimosas will not find them here; bottomless alcohol of any kind is outlawed.

Furthermore, North Carolina remains a state with “blue laws;” ABC stores remain closed on Sundays to prohibit the sale of liquor.  Notably, up until two years ago, Graham County was a dry county, with the only exception allowed for outlying resortsToday, citizens in Graham County are allowed to buy beer and wine within county limits, but liquor is still prohibited.

The state has seen slight movements in the alcohol laws in the past four to five years.  In 2022, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation to assist in modernizing North Carolina’s alcohol laws.  House Bill 768 repealed the limited winery permit, which only allowed existing wineries the ability to provide free samples.  The sale of alcohol at professional sporting events being held at stadiums owned by community colleges is now permitted, something the legislature had authorized for universities only in 2019.  Local distilleries can obtain mixed beverage catering permits to cater their liquor products at special events.  These distilleries are also authorized to sell mixed cocktails made with their own liquor for consumption on their premises.

A recent Senate Bill 527, passed by the North Carolina House during the 2023 legislative session aims to continue the modernization.  Aptly named the “Brunch Bill,” Bill 527 would legalize happy hours.  To-go cocktails, lawful for a short time during the COVID-19 pandemic, would be allowed once again, and with a lower tax rate.  ABC stores open on Sundays, along with some federal holidays (but only the really important, booze-heavy ones—New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day).

Part of the support to modernize alcohol laws comes from the hospitality industry, which currently faces greater hurdles in obtaining and maintaining its bar and liquor business than in other states.  The loosening of liquor laws also points to shifting views of North Carolina residents.   A 2020 study found 52% of people in North Carolina prefer a private system for selling alcohol, over the current ABC monopoly.

In the capital of Raleigh, the relaxation of alcohol laws has already taken effect.  In August 2022, the “Sip n’ Stroll” was introduced.  Sip n’ Stroll is a designated area of downtown Raleigh that allows those aged 21 and up to purchase beer, wine, or cocktails from participating restaurants and walk the streets with an open container.  The Sip n’ Stroll operates from 10 am to 10 pm, seven days a week—a notable deviation from the “no booze on Sunday” laws and culture still emphasized around the state.

North Carolina’s alcohol laws have been through the wringer.  From religion and politics to prohibition and bootlegging, the state’s stance on alcohol has shifted in multiple directions with the landscape continuing to move beneath our feet.  The current trend seems to be heading toward less stringent rules and the possibility of the privatization of sales and regulation.  Whether the drink of choice is moonshine or a mimosa, we raise our glasses to the next big change in alcohol laws on its way to North Carolina.