Culture: What It’s Like to Live in a Dry Town | Wine Enthusiast
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What It’s Like to Live in a Dry Town

We generally talk about Prohibition as a thing of the past, something that ended on Repeal Day in 1933. But anyone who deals with the problems of America’s drinks industry—from the archaic patchwork of existing laws to the inability of domestic wineries to ship direct to consumers in many states to the woeful three-tiered system controlled by mafia-like distributors—knows that the legacy of Prohibition simmers just below the surface. Last year, I wrote a feature for the Washington Post about the new temperance movement, the members of which many deem “neo-prohibitionists.”

In some cases, however, Prohibition is literally very much alive and well. Thirty-three states allow local governments to prohibit the sale of booze. Nearly 16 million Americans live in towns or counties where buying booze is against the law. I am one of those Americans.

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It always surprises people when I tell them I live in a town that prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages. A drinks writer who lives in a dry town! The irony! My year-round residence, the historic town of Haddonfield, New Jersey, has been dry since 1873—a full 47 years before Prohibition. This was mostly driven by local Quakers who led the early temperance movement and didn’t like Haddonfield’s reputation, dating to the 18th century, as a tavern town. Our major historic site, incongruously, is the Indian King Tavern, which dates to 1750. The last local vote to allow liquor, in 1976, failed.

In any case, this summer, I’ve chosen to double down on dry towns, and perhaps also irony. I’ve temporarily relocated to a completely dry island: Ocean City, New Jersey, which has prohibited booze since 1909.

The Indian Tavern is pictured March 1, 2013 in Haddonfield, New Jersey
The Indian Tavern in Haddonfield, New Jersey / Photo by RAPHAELLE PICARD/AFP via Getty Images

Summer on a dry island has little effect on my life. After all, a prohibition on the local sale of alcohol does not mean drinkers can’t imbibe out-of-state booze at home. Indeed, in Ocean City, I have a well-stocked bar. I meet friends for happy hour on the public beach and we pour wine, beer or cocktails—concealed in a plastic cup. No one hassles us. I can also take a 10-minute Uber ride to the next island south, which has two bayside bars.

Clearly, I’m not the only one dedicated to workarounds. In 2017, USA Today voted Ocean City as New Jersey’s “drunkest city.” Since the town was originally founded in the 19th century by four Methodist ministers as a Christian resort, Ocean City’s old guard wasn’t very happy with this designation.

The main negative effect of local Prohibition is a rather poor restaurant scene on the island, compounded because Ocean City bans a bring-your-own-bottle option. Some private clubs have popped up, but by and large, you must leave the island to legally drink. I’ve always thought it was irresponsible of Ocean City—a city of more than 150,000 on a summer weekend—to compel residents who desire wine with dinner to hop into their cars. Yet the old laws aren’t changing any time soon. A decade ago, the town voted 2-1 against allowing the BYOB option.

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Meanwhile, back home in Haddonfield—thanks to a new loophole in the state law—our town is evolving from dry to damp. Selling booze is still technically illegal, but new rules in New Jersey meant to encourage craft breweries, distilleries and wineries now allow them to operate outside of local control. Our small town of 12,000 now has exactly one brew pub, one wine tasting room and one distillery with a cocktail bar.

I recently had a beer at our local King’s Road Brewery with our former mayor, Jeff Kasko, who was in office when Haddonfield was moving from dry to damp in 2013 and 2014. At that time, when the state laws changed and the brewery approached the town, there was a lot of vocal opposition.

“People pushed back, including my predecessor in office,” Kasko recalls. “They said, ‘Look, the tradition of this town is that it’s dry, and we don’t want alcohol of any sort.’”

Ultimately, because of the new law, the naysayers in town had little legal footing to oppose the brewery. So far, the prohibitionists’ concerns about the nature of the town changing have been proven wrong.

“We have one nice brewery, we have one nice winery and the town is fine,” Kasko says. “It didn’t go to pot. We don’t have drunk people stumbling all over the street. It’s worked. It’s not mayhem.”

Vacationers strolling along the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jerse
Vacationers strolling along the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey / Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

In fact, Kasko says the booze-focused enterprises have had a positive impact on the town. “You can physically see it when you’re downtown on a nice day or nice early evening,” he says. “I meet people in here all the time that aren’t from Haddonfield and they’ve never been to Haddonfield. Once they’re here, they’re going to dinner at a restaurant down the street, or they’re checking out an antique store, or another shop downtown. But they’re walking around. And then they go home and tell their friends. You can’t buy that type of promotion or that kind of foot traffic. So, bringing [alcohol-focused establishments] here has been an absolute boon to this downtown.”

But prohibitionists aren’t the only ones trying to limit alcohol consumption. The state of New Jersey, for example, strictly limits liquor licenses—so much that the few available often sell for more than a million dollars per license. The value of these limited licenses often benefits certain entrenched interests, in what the Newark Star-Ledger calls “the New Jersey liquor cartel.” This system may be changing, though: Earlier this spring, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy unveiled a plan for liquor license reform in the state, an effort to create more opportunities to sell beer, wine and liquor.

It remains to be seen whether Gov. Murphy will be successful. But our little damp town could be an ideal model.

You can follow Jason Wilson on Wine Enthusiast and click here to subscribe to his Everyday Drinking newsletter, where you’ll receive regular dispatches on food, travel and culture through the lens of wine and spirits.

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