Niki Ganong wants to help travelers drink better. In “The Field Guide to Drinking in America: A Traveler’s Handbook to State Liquor Laws,” the Portland, Ore.-based author talks up a seemingly dull topic: liquor laws. Divided into seven geographic regions, the book, published in April by Overcup Press, illuminates how liquor laws — and implicitly, attitudes toward alcohol itself — vary across the country. Each state gets the same treatment: one page each for an introductory essay and libation facts, plus historical, political and pop-culture factoids.
Prospective readers can take their cues from the book’s design; it has a stylized beer can on the cover and cheeky inside illustrations. The field guide is a fun, lighthearted look at booze rules in the country. The blurby, state-by-state approach makes the book most enjoyable in small doses; an inveterate binge reader, I managed about five states per sitting before the details started to blur. That said, it was an excellent match with a dram of whiskey — and has me dreaming about a summer road trip.
The Washington Post caught up with Ganong by phone to talk all things boozy and regulatory. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
My publisher came up with it. He was on a plane and had come back from a place where it was tricky to find something to drink, and he came to me. We talked about it at a bar, naturally.
What do you mean by “tricky to find something to drink”?
I often travel for beer or food festivals. For example, there’s the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. It’s the largest beer festival in the country — more than 2,000 beers are poured. But if you go into a supermarket you can’t buy more than 3.2% alcohol beer. These are tricky things when you’re traveling.
In the book, you talk about control states. What is that?
Well, I’m from Pennsylvania, my publisher is from Indiana and we live in Oregon, and all three of those states are control states. They all have an alcoholic Big Brother, so to speak: The states control the sale of alcohol. And they all deal with alcohol very differently.
How is the book organized?
For each state, there’s one page which is all brass tacks: the law and how the laws affect the consumer. The source material was the code, or the law from each state. That’s set by the OLCC [Oregon Liquor Control Commission] in Oregon, for example, or the ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] elsewhere.
What about the essays and factoids for each state?
I did a ton of reading and research for the essay portion, and, you know, things just don’t fit. A lot of those boozy facts were extraneous things I couldn’t include in the essays.
How would you characterize the booze culture in D.C.?
You never know what gem you’re going to find on the shelves and menus of D.C. In most states, there’s a three-tier system that requires bars and stores to buy their product from wholesalers. But D.C. has a unique alcohol import permit system that allows licensees to procure and sell beer and wine that is not otherwise distributed in the District. As a result, niche retailers have made it their business to find rare and vintage wines. And bars and restaurants are seeking out niche breweries and bringing their beer to the city.
In your book, you write that sangria wasn’t legal in Virginia until 2008. Why is that?
In Virginia, there was a problem with pre-batching [mixing cocktails in advance]. The issue is that sangria has to be made in advance; you have to let the flavors meld. So they made it legal to pre-batch sangria, but a pitcher of margaritas can’t be made ahead of time. You have to make it à la minute, so to speak.
In general, are liquor laws becoming more permissive?
It’s interesting the way the law hasn’t changed; it’s the interpretation of the law that has changed. In Pennsylvania, they’re a very strict state, and they control the sale of beer. You could only buy it by the six-pack from a restaurant at an elevated price, or a case of 24 from the distributor. Anything that Pennsylvania does has to be put before the voting populace, so the laws don’t change often. So they just redefined what a case was. Now you can buy a case of 12, for example.
To what extent do liquor laws shape a region’s culture?
I think it’s the reverse. It’s the culture that affects the law, at least initially. In Montana, another state that sells only low-point beer, that’s all they consume because that’s all they get. They’re one of the largest consumers of low-point beer. Does it affect their beer culture? Sure, absolutely. If something’s not readily available, you’re not going to buy it.
Why are some of the laws so oddly specific? For example, Ohio, Illinois and Alaska don’t permit drinking games in bars.
Some of it is horrific, like, New York state forbids dwarf-tossing. It’s obscene and it’s in the current law. But the laws are written explicitly and for various reasons — whoever puts the law through might have had something they wanted to prevent. Things like body shots that happen on college campuses. Some stodgy guy thinks that’s not fun, puts the kibosh on it.
What do you think this book tells us about America’s underlying neuroses?
I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer that. As neuroses get higher, people drink more? I do know that the way that people drink, not what they drink, is informative. When they gather in Wisconsin, beer is a part of everyday life — at church picnics, that sort of thing.
Have you had a drink in all 50 states, plus D.C.?
No, I haven’t. But it’s important to have goals.
Yuh writes about chocolate, spirits and travel. She is the author of “The Chocolate Tasting Kit.”
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