We spent a few lovely days on the Eastern shore of the Chesapeake (more anon about the food) and I was struck by the radical differences in the laws governing the sale of liquor. In my fair state, liquor licenses are granted based on population: about one license for each 7500 people. So my little village has only five or six licenses available (Licenses extant before 1948 are grandfathered). What this does is increase the price of each license far beyond any rational amount. The last one available was being sold for $600,000. And guess what? In this marvelous economy there were no takers. The distortion in the market is obvious, but it also twists the restaurant business into odd shapes. A $10 glass of wine makes a typical restaurant a lovely profit, so they don’t have make all of their money on the food. But without a liquor license, dishes that should be priced in the mid teens are miraculously transformed into works of culinary art that cost well in excess of their value in a rational market.
In Maryland, where the cost of a liquor license is a fraction of what it is in New Jersey, seemingly everyone has one! I walked into a nice little coffee shop one morning and was startled to see a few bottles of booze on the back shelf, and some bottled beer in the cooler. I usually don’t have a shot of tequila in my morning coffee, but I was gratified by the opportunity. And I saw no breakdown of society that some would argue occurs when liquor is widely available. There were no children begging for a few pennies for their morning vodka and milk, no bums panhandling for beer money, the streets were clean, and I saw no evidence that the fabric of the universe had been torn by easy availability of alcohol.
What I did see, and enjoy, was a large number of fine restaurants that were reasonably priced, where I could have a glass of beer with lunch or a cocktail and a few glasses of wine with dinner. The political climate in Maryland is by no means libertarian, yet for some reason they never got around to screwing up the liquor license laws. Good for them! Unfortunately for New Jersey, it will be very difficult to moderate our existing regulation. Imagine if you owned one of those ridiculously expensive licenses and some well-meaning politician decided that liquor law reform was a good thing. I’ll bet that you would work very, very diligently to prevent any change. That’s perfectly understandable, and unfortunate for the rest of us.