The Thirst of the People

Liquor might be quicker, but dismantling the legacy of Prohibition has taken 80 years in Washington, accomplished mostly by initiative.

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The state's highest-grossing liquor store, at 7th Avenue and Bell Street in downtown Seattle.

Liquor might be quicker, but dismantling the legacy of Prohibition has taken 80 years in Washington, accomplished mostly by initiative.

Costco might have put $22 million into privatizing the liquor industry in Washington, but you can't say either they or the voters acted rashly. The vote for I-1183 was decisive. After rejecting previous proposals, the people finally liked the deal they were offered: significant revenues for the state, more shopping convenience, and, perhaps, better prices for the public. 

Costco has always put a warm-and-fuzzy face on that little dark part of our souls that lusts for "deals" that are so good they make us feel like we're purchasing stuff that fell off the back of a truck. We all understood that Costco & booze had an inherent appeal: sin at bargain prices.

I just got back from California and can see we're looking forward to our roads being lined with businesses with classy names like the "Likker Locker."

Costco certainly acted in the best interests of its stockholders and customers and will get its money back, a huge sum though it is in state politics. Through initiatives, Washingtonians have been very slowly dismantling the legacy of Prohibition for nearly 80 years.

In 1914, via initiative, Washington voters passed a state prohibition law, well before the law was ratified nationally. In 1932, by initiative, the state voted strongly to repeal Prohibition and in 1934 the state took strict control of the liquor business.

In 1948, there was an initiative to give the state a monopoly on all alcohol sales, so that even beer and wine would have to be purchased at state stores. It was defeated. Voters also passed an initiative that year to permit the sale of liquor in hotels, restaurants, trains, ships, planes, and the like. A good Historylink rundown on some of this history is here.

The state did not go to hell thereafter, and the passage of that initiative is credited by some with a boom in the local restaurant industry in the 1950s and '60s. Fine dining establishments were hard to make work without the revenues from hard liquor sales. That new revenue stream made investing in top-notch dining establishments viable. Word got to a young local boy who was cutting his teeth in San Francisco, and Victor Rosellini headed home to help kick off a restaurant renaissance in Seattle. There might not have been a 610 or a Canlis without that vote.

During the 1962 world's fair, there was an effort to lift the Sunday ban on the sale of liquor, which made Seattle seem like a hick town, especially compared to San Francisco, whose sophistication we were trying to emulate and match in our own Mad Men era. But it wasn't successful and Sundays remained dry. Sundays in the bar had to wait until 1966, when another initiative passed and knocked down the so-called Blue Laws that included a ban on all Sunday alcohol sales.

Seattle in particular is still working to gain big-city status as a drinking town. The old tavern system has slowly died off as liquor licenses have flourished, and the proposal to stagger closing hours and allow 24-hour bars is seen by many as a good public safety move as well as a shift toward big-league status.

There will now be a major re-juggling of the old order among distributors, retailers, distilleries, wineries, and customers. It's hard to imagine it will all work without a hitch, and we might well be asked to make future changes, just as we've stood up to make our thirst for change known over the last century.

But the last vestiges of Prohibition are finally gone. Happy Days are Here Again, Costco shoppers.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.