By David Landsel, Food & Wine — Even if they don't know very much about Utah, most people who do not live there know that it's got some of the most punishingly strict alcohol laws found anywhere in North America.
Or, at least, it used to. In recent years, there's been a significant effort to do away with the various quirky rules and restrictions; this summer, one of the last of the majorly insane laws—the one requiring restaurants to conceal the mixing and preparation of drinks behind what was known as a Zion Curtain—finally dropped off the books. Visitors to Salt Lake City, the state's diverse and growing capital, will typically be hard-pressed to notice much difference between a bar or a restaurant here, and a bar or restaurant anywhere else. Except, perhaps—very important!—for the wealth of local beer and spirits which you can now consume.
Microbreweries, distilleries, even a couple of cider houses—these days, it feels like you can find something local and good to drink, pretty much everywhere. You might still run into the odd snag, to be sure—there's still a 4 percent alcohol by volume cap on tapped beer, for example, even at a brewpub—but that's where the state's high altitudes come in handy, right? Ready to get drinking? Here are just a few essential stops, to get you off and running.
Dented Brick Distillery
A brick house nearly a century year old with its own artesian well just ten minutes or so from the bustle of downtown Salt Lake is the home of Antelope Island Rum—yes, rum—that's taken local bartenders (and lovers of a good cocktail) by surprise. They do multiple daily tours, Thursdays through Saturdays; a tasting is, of course, part of the fun.
RoHa Brewing Project
One of Utah's hottest new breweries is headed up by one of the state's top talents, Chris Haas; it's also right in Salt Lake, even closer to downtown. They made their very strong debut with five beers (including a proper saison) to choose from; drop by their informal and friendly tap room for a taste, or just grab and go.
Mountain West Cider
They've been around for a couple of years, but this cider house in Salt Lake's historic Capitol Hill neighborhood is a definite must for fans of the genre, or even for people who aren't cider lovers, just yet. If you've always found ciders too sweet, the dry hopped Cottonwood might just win you over; for a truly local taste, opt for the Desolation, infused with prickly pear puree, resulting in a deep, pinkish color. Tours and tastings are offered.
New World Distillery
Out in the Ogden Valley, one of the state's newest craft distilleries specializes in agave spirits, gin, and vodka—they're known for their serious approach to sustainability, starting with the ingredients, which are natural and GMO-free. Their Oomaw Gin has made it into Utah's notorious state liquor stores, but to try their Rabbit and Grass blanco tequila, distilled from 100% organic blue agave, you'll have to drop by the distillery—tours and tastings are available on weekends; make sure to reserve.
Crowd-pleasers like the Hop Nosh IPA and the Baba Black Lager have been effective calling cards for this very good Salt Lake brewer over the last few years; many casual fans are surprised to discover just how diverse their interests are. Uinta's brewpub/restaurant—somewhat buried in a blank industrial area, west of central Salt Lake, is a must for visiting beer lovers. There are tours, a ton of taps (and bottles), plus—talk about outstanding value—4 oz. tasting pours for a buck. Probably don't drive here?