The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wisconsin’s bar-to-grocery store ratio puts the rest of the country to shame

When it comes to bars, Wisconsin is more like France than Germany. (istockphoto)

Drive around the state of Wisconsin and you're probably more likely to come across a bar than a grocery store.

For Wisconsinites, this probably comes as no surprise, given the state's well-documented culture of drinking. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel launched a multi-part series  titled "Wasted in Wisconsin," which documented just how drunk Wisconsinites tend to be, and how often they don't know it.

Stacked up against the rest of the country, however, the picture is pretty stark. Wisconsin's bars outnumber their grocery stores almost three to one, according to Google data mapped by FlowingData's  Nathan Yau.

Yau's analysis and visualization add some useful context to data that have been around for at least the past few years. Rather than simply looking at where in the U.S. bars outnumber restaurants and vice-versa, Yau was able to map magnitude.

And though he notes that "higher rates don't necessarily point to higher volumes of drinking," its hard to miss just how deep Wisconsin's bar culture goes.

Within Wisconsin, there's some debate about the origins of the state's drinking — and bar — culture. Some of it, according to the Journal-Sentinal, is blamed on the state's German and European heritage:

Some 43% of Wisconsinites claim ancestry from Germany — second only to North Dakota, a state that virtually mirrors our drinking patterns. But time has diluted Wisconsin's German blood. The great majority of German immigration to the state ended more than 100 years ago. And while North Dakota downs a lot of alcohol, so does much of New England, where German ancestry is minimal.
"I don't buy it," Wisconsin historian Jack Holzhueter said of the German-heritage explanation. "Too many generations have gone by." ...
But even if the direct effects of Wisconsin's German and brewing heritage have largely vanished, they help shape the state's collective identity — an identity many accept as it's passed on to them.

Curious about that too, Yau went looking for similar patterns in Europe and came up with nothing in Germany, where many Wisconsinites claim their ancestors hailed from. You're more likely to find similar bar-to-grocery store ratios in France or Spain.

On the other hand, Wisconsin still doesn't rank highest in bars per capita. That honor goes to North Dakota and Montana, who are numbers one and two respectively. North Dakota has 9.9 bars per 10,000 people, according to Yau, and Montana has 8.6 per 10,000. Wisconsin comes in third with just 8 bars per 10,000 people. 

In the case of North Dakota, it doesn't help the state's bar-to-people ratio that its 699,628-person population is spread out over 68,994 square miles, which makes it easier to justify opening bars that serve people in remote areas. The same could be said of Montana.

But it probably isn't pure coincidence that the states with the most bars are also anecdotally and statistically documented to have particularly stubborn alcohol problems.

A 2009 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that North Dakota led the nation in binge drinking. The problem was so bad that a former first lady of the state, Mikey Hoeven, led a campaign to combat alcohol abuse while her husband (now Sen. John Hoeven) was in office. And North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem pointed the finger at the state's "culture of acceptance" around teen drinking in an interview with the Associated Press.

It's a similar story in Montana. The state was once a place where drinking while driving was perfectly legal in some parts.  And according to the AP, some bars offered drinks in to-go cups.

Wisconsin has the highest rate of drunk driving in the country. According to the advocacy group MADD, it's the only state in the union where the first drunk driving offense is a traffic ticket, not a crime.

The numbers aren't perfect, as Yau notes in his analysis. There are bars in a lot of places, including restaurants and hotels, where people might have a drink or two with a meal, which tells us very little about the quantity of heavy drinking going on there.

And  again, the presence of bars doesn't necessarily mean that people drink less in places where there are fewer bars. People in Delaware, Maryland and Mississippi — states with the lowest rates of bars to people — could very well be drinking heavily, only in the privacy of their homes or at private functions. Chances are, some people in those places are doing just that.