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Late to the Party: The Strange History of Liquor Laws in Kansas

Sorry, Carrie Nation

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Above image credit: An Anti-Saloon League rally. (Courtesy | "Prohibition," A Film by Ken Burns/ PBS Learning Media)

The state of Kansas is yet to ratify the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

For anyone needing to brush up on U.S. history, the 21st Amendment took effect Dec. 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment officially repealing Prohibition.

Kansas is joined by neighbors Nebraska and Oklahoma as lingering holdouts, in addition to a few other historically conservative states that have taken no action on the near-prehistoric matter.

In fact, the state of Kansas has pretty much done its own thing entirely when it comes to liquor laws, dating back to the days well before Prohibition became the law of the land on Jan. 16, 1920.

Of course, the Sunflower State’s reluctance in ratifying the repeal of Prohibition and the roller coaster of liquor laws written, signed and repealed in the ensuing century won’t result in the feds or followers of the infamous temperance movement leader Carry Nation busting up your favorite pub or brewery — not in 2022, at least.

The strange and evolving history of liquor laws in the state, though, does provide some entertaining context as to how Kansans have enjoyed a drink or two through the years, not to mention a few of the more recent changes that have taken effect in Kansas.

For instance, happy hours as we now know them were illegal west of State Line Road until 2011.

My, how times have changed.

Kansas Goes Dry (1880)

Forty years before the 18th Amendment that instituted Prohibition was ratified, Kansas went dry.

“The manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors shall be forever prohibited in this state, except for medical, scientific and mechanical purposes.”

– Amendment to Kansas State Constitution, Nov. 2, 1880.

That’s where “Kansas Beer: A Heady History” author Bob Crutchfield started his research. The Coffeyville, Kansas, native pondered the state’s high population of German settlers and their affinity for beer during that time.

Why was Kansas the first state to crack down on the stuff?

The front page of Carrie Nation's pro-temperance newsletter "The Smasher's Mail."
The front page of Carrie Nation’s pro-temperance newsletter “The Smasher’s Mail.” (Courtesy | Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library)

“Abolitionists and temperance-minded folks from the east and northeast came to the state and Kansas was flooded with anti-slave and temperance-minded people, plus Mennonite communities,” Crutchfield said.

By the late 1800s, good-timing cattle ranchers who let loose in the growing number of saloons, breweries and brothels that popped up along the railroad and cattle drive routes became the nail in the coffin for the consumption of alcohol.

The timing of the national temperance movement and the election of Prohibition Party member John P. St. John as governor of Kansas in 1879 made the legislation possible.

In the 1880 general election, the people of Kansas voted in favor of Prohibition.

Leading up to statewide Prohibition passing in Kansas, the state had more breweries in operation than it does today. It’s a point that Crutchfield, a self-described “beer guy” through and through, can’t emphasize enough.

Despite state prohibition, Crutchfield said that up until the late 1880s, a lot of the state’s drinking spots remained in operation, despite the fine of at least $100 and no more than $500 for first time offenders — or 20 to 90 days in jail.

“They’d arrest one brewer, play cards and dominoes down at the jailhouse, let him go and they’d go out and get the other brewer the next day — it was a facade,” Crutchfield said.

According to Crutchfield, brewers found out the state meant business when Atchison, Kansas, brewmaster Peter Mugler took his case regarding a poorly timed business venture to court.

Mugler built an Atchison brewery in 1877, costing him $10,000. The brewery remained in operation after Kansas’ amendment prohibiting intoxicating liquors and sure enough, Mugler was convicted and suddenly his investment tumbled in value.

The state ruled against Mugler, who argued the state lacked authority in prohibiting making intoxicating beverages for personal consumption or export and substantially devalued his brewery property from $10,000 to about $2,500.

The ruling was upheld 7-1 by the U.S. Supreme Court and Mugler was out of luck. Fellow brewers in the state were in the same boat.

Today, Blue Skye Brewery & Eats in Salina offers an American IPA called Mugler’s Revenge.


A Film by Ken Burns


Prohibition Lifted, Near Beer (1933 – 1949)

In 1933, Americans raised a glass. With the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, federal Prohibition was over. But that was not the case for the people in Kansas.

State law remained in place and Kansas was completely dry until four years after the 21st Amendment. In 1937, the state followed suit in allowing 3.2% ABV beer – derided by some drinkers as “near beer” – as it was determined “non-intoxicating” by Congress in the Cullen-Harrison Act, also passed in 1933.

Sixty years after Mugler built his Atchison brewery, 3.2% beer, or Cereal Malt Beverage (CMB) was flowing in Kansas.

Well before the legal consumption of CMB became Kansas law in 1937 for anyone over the age of 18, “You could just drive to Kansas City,” Crutchfield said.

“So that was kind of a way to get around Prohibition,” said Kansas Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) Director Debbi Beavers.

It wasn’t until 1948 that Kansas voted wet, bringing an end to the longest state prohibition against liquor in the country. A year later in 1949, the Kansas ABC was created to regulate the business between manufacturers, distributors and consumers.

Also in 1949, Kansas upped its drinking age to 21 for anything harder than 3.2% beer, liquor stores were authorized, though the “open saloon” was “forever prohibited” — meaning unless it was 3.2% beer, there was no public place in the state to lawfully sit and have a drink.

Drinkers had to buy their bottle and take it home. Vendors kept a tight record of who bought what.

“If there was liquor being consumed in the restaurant or in public, that was an open saloon. There was generally complaint-driven enforcement, Kansas is an extremely conservative state and alcohol was not considered to be a good thing,” Beavers said.

“It was pretty strict.”

Private Clubs, Open Saloons, The Microbrewery (1965 – 1986)

Despite the “forever prohibited” stamp, liquor inevitably found its way into bars and restaurants.

Crutchfield said there wasn’t a whole lot preventing a restaurant owner from buying bottles of whiskey and sticking them behind the bar.

Speakeasies like Blind Tiger Restaurant and Brewery in Topeka would place a small item in the window front to let the thirsty know they could enjoy a drink there. Blind Tiger, for example, used a small toy tiger.

Beavers presumes that The Private Club Act (1965) was put forward as a response to the “open saloon” loophole.

The new law allowed the consumption of liquor on premises that were not open to the public. It cleared the way for anyone over the age of 21 to pay a $10 membership fee at their favorite drinking establishment, wait 10 days to become a member and from there it was free game.

In his book, Crutchfield concluded The Private Club Act became a lucrative opportunity for spots like Blind Tiger.

The law allowed establishments like the Blind Tiger to offer reciprocal memberships, meaning if you belong to one “private club,” the membership could be accepted in multiple bars or restaurants that provided a cut to the Topeka bar.

This freed things up a bit and offered some flexibility to the thirsty looking to bar hop and lined business owners’ pockets with cash. Although the law was a challenge to enforce, according to Crutchfield, private club memberships were needed to get drink for the next 13 years.

“From there, it was 1978 when the legislature passed a bill saying restaurants that sell at least 50% sales of food can sell liquor by the drink to members of the public,” Beavers said.

That same year laws deeming the saloon “forever prohibited” were ruled unconstitutional.

Between 1979 and 1986, liquor laws in Kansas continued to evolve — slowly.

In 1979, open wholesaling was replaced by franchise laws.

By 1983, farm wineries were legalized in the state.

In 1985, the drinking age for 3.2% beer was raised from 18 to 21.

Voters passed another constitutional amendment in 1986, allowing liquor by the drink to be sold to members of the public on a county-by-county basis. A 30% food sales requirement was included, but counties were able to eliminate the stipulation by a vote.

In 1987, microbreweries were allowed to operate in Kansas.

Free State Brewing Co.'s Breakaway IPA
Free State Brewing Co. in Lawrence, Kansas, one of the region’s first microbreweries, opened in 1987. (Contributed | Free State Brewing Co.)

Modern Changes – Happy Hour Ban Lifted, 6% ABV, The Pandemic, Law Review (2011 – 2021)

While the 1986 amendment brought liquor laws in Kansas close to what they are today, the rules have continued to zig and zag into the 21st century.

For instance, a ban on happy hours was lifted in 2011.

Before it was lifted, the ban prevented temporary discounts on drinks during a “happy hour” period by requiring an all-day price reduction.

In 2012, public venue and microdistillery licenses were legalized, in addition to on-premises sales on railway cars and the authorization of samples for retail liquor stores and manufacturers.

In 2015, powdered alcohol was banned and automated wine dispensing machines were authorized.

By 2017, retail liquor stores were cleared to sell 20% other goods and services (excludes cigarette, tobacco and lottery sales). Retailer licenses were updated to sell beer not more than 6% ABV.

A year later, the manufacture and sale of alcoholic candy was cleared.

At the Kansas ABC, Beavers and her team don’t make the rules, strange as they may be. The department is in place to make sure anything libation-related lines up with the legislature.

“[We] try to put the rules in layman’s terms as far as what they can and can’t do,” said Beavers.

Common issues in contemporary times include underage sales/consumption, hearing complaints regarding trade practices and unlawful shipments of beer and liquor to members of the public in the state from unlicensed sellers.

“You can go on websites all day long and go right to the checkout and they’ll tell you they will ship you wine, liquor or beer and they are not licensed to do that. You have to have special order shipping,” Beavers explained.

She described the unlawful shipments, primarily from online liquor stores, as an “enormous issue” as alcohol sales change in the age of e-commerce.

In November 2021, a special committee held the final of four meetings on liquor law modernization in Kansas, which is still home to three completely dry counties (Haskell, Stanton and Wallace). Without going into detail, Beavers said topics discussed included a few general recommendations, plus a few explorative chats.


Three Kansas counties — Haskell, Stanton and Wallace — still prohibit sales of liquor by the drink. (Courtesy | Kansas ABC)

“The focus of the committee was to sort of pause and say: ‘We’ve made a whole bunch of changes in the last five or six years and are they working? Have we gone too far?’” Beavers said.

The committee convened after more recent changes to liquor laws in the state. Those changes include the authorization of to-go drinks during the COVID pandemic, allowing retailers to sell growlers and crowlers, expanded Sunday liquor sales hours (dependent on county/city ordinances) and the authorization for liquor stores to sell on Memorial Day, Labor Day and Independence Day (if not on Sunday) in cities or counties that have not authorized Sunday sales.

“Everyone is going to want some changes and changes do need to happen. Just think of our world right now. Four years ago most people were going to the store instead of buying their groceries online,” Beavers said.

“As consumer demands change, liquor laws will evolve.”

Flatland contributor Clarence Dennis also is a social media manager for 90.9 The Bridge.

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