Kansas legalized to-go cocktails earlier this year. Here's what liquor changes lawmakers may consider next.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Ryan Cavanaugh, co-owner of Brew Bank, 822 S. Kansas Ave., pours in tonic water to top off a to-go version of the restaurants' Spanish Gin. Cavanaugh said adding the ability for to-go drinks has been good for his business, with custom cocktails being especially popular.

Once the land of the country's toughest liquor laws and the birthplace of its most ardent opponents to the evil of the drink, including the hatchet wielding Carrie Nation, Kansas has made strides in modernizing its liquor laws in recent years.

Lawmakers are weighing what changes, if any, should come next.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a wave of moves, including the birth of to-go cocktails and drive-through drinks, as a way to help out bars slammed by restrictions on operating hours and a declining number of patrons due to the virus.

Many of these provisions were made permanent during the 2021 legislative session, bowing to consumer preference for greater access to their favorite drinks.

But Adam Mills, president of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said the changes haven't been enough to reverse the monetary losses of the past year-and-a-half.

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His organization is in the midst of surveying restaurant and bar owners as to the exact impacts — except many owners have been too busy to respond, forced to help out in kitchens and behind counters amid staffing shortages.

"There's no way to call it a boon," Mills said. "We're still struggling from the effect of the pandemic ... I think it was the right move to make and we are appreciative but sales are so far off normal."

And not all of the new provisions have fully kicked in yet.

One major change to state law allowed for Sunday liquor sales to begin at 9 a.m., with sales also legalized on Memorial Day, Labor Day and the Fourth of July. The move was an attempt to match Missouri's laws, especially with an eye toward allowing for Kansas City Chiefs fans to stock up on alcohol before kickoff.

Liquor stores may soon be able to start selling their products earlier on Sunday thanks to a new law passed during the 2021 session.

The decision to implement the provision was left up to city governments, however.

Many communities — including Topeka, Kansas City, Kan., and many municipalities in Johnson County — embraced the expanded hours, well before NFL season. Others, including Wichita, the state's largest city, haven't yet made the move.

Leawood is one of the last holdouts in Johnson County, although that will change starting this weekend. Ranchmart Wine and Spirits will move its opening hours up to 10 a.m. when allowed to do so and is expecting the profits to be substantial for the additional two hours, likely topping $1,000 in additional sales.

Across town, Monica Coburn, owner of Harry's Liquor, said the move would be a big blow in favor of keeping consumers from driving to Missouri — just two miles away.

"The amount of people that are trying to pry the doors open at 11 a.m. or standing outside, looking disappointed — it feels like a lot of people when you're standing there, waiting until noon to open," Coburn said.

Has the state gone too far in liberalizing its liquor laws?

To Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, there is some worry the state has gone too far in liberalizing when, where and how residents can buy their drink of choice.

Kansas traditionally has had one of the strictest set of liquor laws in the country. It was the first state in the country where voters approved prohibition, 40 years before that policy became the law of the land. It was the third-to-last state to reverse course and resume liquor sales in 1948 but still placed strict restrictions on where alcohol can be consumed.

Most all of those regulations, however, have been lifted in recent years. In 2019, grocery and convenience stores could sell full-strength beer, dispensing with one of the last holdovers of the prohibition era. Hours of sale at retailers, bars and restaurants have expanded slowly over the years.

It isn't clear what impact, if any, this has had on public health and safety. The number of crashes involving impaired drivers has declined from 3,292 in 2007 to 2,128 in 2018, the most recent year data was available. The number of DUI arrests has also declined in recent years.

But Carmichael argued much of the liberalization of liquor laws has been powered by industry players, although he acknowledged there have been changes in consumer demand.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, worries the state has gone too far in liberalizing when, where and how residents can buy their drink of choice.

And while he said he wasn't necessarily opposed to further changes to liquor laws, Carmichael pushed his colleagues to at least ask the question of where the line should be drawn.

"We ought to see if if we have liberalized too much too fast," he said. "My hope is that the answer is no, that we haven't. And my hope is that if we can responsibly accommodate the industry's requests without endangering the public health, safety and welfare, that we can do those things. But I'm always suspicious."

Lawmakers haven't yet fixated on what further reforms they would like to pursue. A special committee is set to review potential options and make recommendations to the full Legislature when members return to Topeka in January for their annual session.

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Part of the committee's purview will be looking at the value of the changes pursued in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, R-Winfield, who chairs the Senate committee charged with liquor policy.

"I believe that we need to look at what has happened with the laws that came about because of COVID and then bring those back up and make sure that's what we want to do," Alley said.

Beer, hard liquor delivery could be on the table

Lawmakers are set to review whether liquor law changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic were the right move, with legislators trying to help bars and restaurants, such as Wellers Bar and Grill, stay afloat.

It is likely, however, that many of the options to be considered will continue the trend of increasing the availability of liquor.

That could include allowing individuals to order beer or spirits online and have them delivered, perhaps along with their groceries.

Delivery is currently limited to wine in Kansas, but six states allow for spirits to be delivered to consumers, while an additional nine allow for beer or cider to be shipped. ID checks and other safety measures are generally put in place in an effort to stop products from being sold to minors.

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Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, noted limits on shipping alcohol hurt small microbreweries and distilleries in Kansas, curbing their market to visitors who stop by their physical premises.

"When (visitors) get back home to western Kansas and they want to have another bottle of whatever it is they liked, there is no way for them to have it without driving here," Tarwater said.

But Alley poured cold water on the idea that lawmakers would seek an even more sweeping change to allow grocery stores to sell wine and spirits, something those retailers have long coveted.

A bill to that effect was introduced in 2017 but lawmakers opted for a handshake agreement with liquor stores to allow grocers and convenience stores to sell stronger beer in exchange for backing off the push to move into wine.

"I don't think that's one of the items (being considered)," Alley said.

‘The open saloon is now and will be forever here in Kansas’

Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs the House committee on liquor policy, said lawmakers may weight big picture changes to the state's alcohol laws in an effort to make it more streamlined for those trying to get a liquor license.

There are also larger structural issues that can complicate the process of even getting a liquor license in the first place.

Kansas has four separate laws governing various elements of buying and selling alcohol. That means a caterer or bar can have a confusing array of language to wade through before they get the answers they are looking for.

Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs the House committee on liquor policy, said streamlining that process would be a big-ticket item legislators may consider. 

Conversely, Carmichael, the Wichita Democrat, warned that legislators might be interested in allowing retailers to buy directly from distributers.

Current law requires them to go through a wholesaler, a unique feature of Kansas law — and Barker said there wasn't a plan to change that, with interest instead on streamlining current restrictions.

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"It would probably be nice ... if you were going to come in to Kansas and open a business in that discipline, then you would be able to go to one chapter in Kansas statutes and learn everything you need to know," he said.

Still, one thing everyone can agree on is that the state is unlikely to return to its dry roots.

The amendment barring liquor sales in the constitution Kansas Constitution predicted the saloon and liquor consumption "is now and shall be forever banned" in the state.

That pronouncement was perhaps a bit premature.

"The open saloon is now and will be forever here in Kansas," Carmichael said.

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.