My Town Went From Moist to Wet

By Mary Meehan 02/12/13

Living in a town that only recently began selling liquor, I see a lot of excitement—and quite a bit of confusion—about alcohol. As a sober alcoholic, I know that’s nothing new. 

wet to dry.thefix.jpg
The booze has landed Mary Meehan

I knew it was coming. The signs were everywhere. 

The drive-thru Quick Stop on the corner declared "Beer Is Here" on a flyer straight from the home printer. 

Speedway Company had seen fit to tear down a seemingly fine convenience store and gas station only to rebuild one on the same spot. The only major change? An enormous beer cave.

On Dec 23, the CVS sign that usually hawked discount toilet paper and Coke bargains on its red, flashing sign touted "Beer, Wine, Liquor, Coming Wednesday.” Merry Christmas one and all! 

Still, when it was there, in front of me, just a few days later—some kind of winter pale ale, a six-pack tucked amid the organic apples at the new Super Kroger, where you can buy both cheese and a couch—I actually did a double take. I looked around to see if maybe somebody had left it there accidentally. I checked the label to see if it was non-alcoholic.

Then I remembered: the town I call home, Georgetown, Kentucky—population of 29,690—had gone wet. The election had taken place the previous summer and I hadn't given much thought to the looming end of prohibition.

And I wasn't the only person caught off guard. At the doctor's office during the peak of flu season, a nurse mentioned how weird she found it to see beer in the Wal-Mart. And when I went to get my prescription filled at CVS, a woman was squealing into her cell phone in disbelief, "They're selling alcohol here!”

I guess she missed the sign.

The truth is that my town, like the state, has a complicated relationship with alcohol. The contradictions are everywhere: a popular poster produced by the viral marketing campaign Kentucky Kicks Ass proudly proclaims, "In Kentucky, there are more bourbon barrels than people." We have a state-sponsored Bourbon Trail tour of distilleries and are the home of the iconic Maker's Mark. In Georgetown, some historians believe that in 1789, Baptist preacher Elijah Craig created the first sour mash distillery at Royal Springs, the creek that still supplies the city water.

It took more than a decade to move into all-out liquor sales in Georgetown.

And yet Carrie Nation, the axe-wielding cover girl of the Temperance Movement, was born just down the road in Garrard County. And the state not only enacted Prohibition two months before the rest of the country but also has never gone totally wet: Thirty-eight of the state's 120 counties—nearly all in the mountainous, poor, eastern part of the state—remain dry and have been for decades. 

I've never seen a compelling narrative for why Kentucky remained a big dry blotch in the midst of a booze-soaked country. It hasn't kept us healthier. We rank high for heart disease, diabetes and obesity. And it doesn't appear to have saved too many from addiction, as our number of fatal overdoses has gone up 296 percent in 10 years.

I've heard but have never seen real proof that it's shadowy business interests that keep counties, especially rural ones, dry—that bootleggers keep counties dry so they can make loads of money.

My only firsthand encounter with bootleggers was in college when a carload of us got off the highway in a dry county looking to buy a bottle or two. The driver knew enough to head to a poor neighborhood where bootleggers might be found and soon enough the local kids, seeing a car crammed with college students, started riding their bikes next to us while pointing down the street. We ended up at the back porch of a small house where a very large man sold us a bottle of Bacardi, barely opening the screen door to collect at a price roughly double what we might have paid in a store.

Other operations were apparently more elaborate, with secret entrances and passwords. Some bootleggers were legendary, like a woman known as the “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers,” who received a rather glowing obituary when she passed away in The Lexington Herald-Leader.

But alcohol wasn’t off limits just because it was lining the pockets of bootleggers. A fundamentalist religious history still holds serious sway here. And the strength of that group, when motivated, can't be discounted. The result is that the state is a patchwork of rules which range from dry (no alcohol sold at all) to moist (alcohol sold by the drink) to wet (booze in stores and restaurants).

It took more than a decade to move into all-out liquor sales in Georgetown. In 2000, some religious leaders and one vocal local pediatrician (my daughter’s doctor, actually) pushed back against a proposed measure to allow drinking in restaurants. It passed anyway. Yet the same dissenters managed to kill a 2008 effort to allow for sales of alcohol on Sundays. 

But last year, with just about 5,000 folks voting, 72 percent were pro booze. There was hardly a whimper of opposition: Yard signs supporting a yes vote dotted lawns but I never saw one supporting a no vote. The rallying cry was not the desire for easy access to moderately priced Pinot Grigio but the desperate need for tax revenue that booze sales could provide. The Super Kroger was part of that equation—the argument that it would add not only sales tax revenue but also jobs and also serve as an anchor for a slew of other alcohol-adjacent businesses.

In a certain sense, the vote shouldn't have made that much of a difference. You could always drink in Georgetown: drive a few miles to the county line and you were in wet territory. And the current rules don’t make much sense to me: You can buy wine and hard liquor at drug stores but only beer at grocery stores. And you can buy hard liquor and wine at a store attached to a grocery store as long as there is unique and solitary entrance. Then there’s my personal favorite crazy rule: you can buy beer at 11 am on Sunday but can’t get hard liquor until 1 pm. Which means, I guess, that going into the house of the Lord drunk on beer is okay but bourbon—well, that’s a sin too far.

It seems, to me, that at the heart of this whole issue is fear—of the demon in "demon rum” and of the destruction alcoholics can have when drinking that lurks just beyond the substance of any discussion.

The logic actually reminds me of an alcoholic trying to control his or drinking by imposing internal rules that seldom hold (“I'll just have one,” “I'll only drink near beer,” “I won't drink on Tuesdays until Cougar Town is on TV,” whatever). If you’ve ever heard old-timers talk about drinking everything from aftershave to Sterno, you know that making alcohol less accessible barely slows us down. 

Decades worth of efforts to avoid that truth and legislate alcohol use away—whether it is motivated fear or financial greed or the religious conviction that drinking is a sin—seems like a massive waste of time. We as a state have enough other problems that need tending.

Either way, that argument is over for now in Georgetown.

Since I wasn’t buying alcohol, sales in stores didn’t matter to me. But when restaurants first started to serve, it took some getting use to because patrons occasionally got drunk and loud. But that was easy enough to avoid.

Yet, in the weeks we’ve been wet, all has been well here. The anti-alcohol folks sometimes paint a foreboding picture of a wet town—as if it will be like how Bedford Falls went to hell as Pottersville in It's A Wonderful Life. But the truth is that the changes are minimal. Sure, there are a few more beer cans tossed in my neighborhood and the Quick Stop lines sometimes run a little long. And the other day, I witnessed two grown men absolutely giddy at the prospect of spending their collective $6 in the CVS liquor aisle. But those are small things.

In Starbucks last week, I overheard two folks in scrubs talking about the town going wet. The man, who was apparently passing through town, asked a few questions. The barista said she hadn't noticed much difference and the guy's colleague chimed in: "You could always just drive to the county line. So I don't really get it."

Neither do I. But the debate on Prohibition continues here. The other day, Estill County, best known as the birthplace of Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson, had the first wet/dry vote since 1960. 

The dry votes won.

Mary Meehan is a sober writer with nearly 30 years of journalism experience. She is a Feature Writer at the Lexington Herald-Leader, where she wrote an award-winning series about Drug Court in Kentucky. She also wrote about the regrets of an alcoholic mother for The Fix.

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