Boston’s Liquor License Problem

Last night, PBS showed the first part of Ken Burns’ new documentary, Prohibition. The series, narrated by prominent actors like Tom Hanks and John Lithgow, shows the build up, passage, and consequences of the “Noble Experiment.” Many Americans hoped that the outlawing of booze would usher in a new age of propriety, hard work, and prosperity; instead, it created a perverse black market and unleashed the full power of a violent Mafia. After 13 years, Prohibition was repealed, and the nation rejoiced. States quickly passed laws to restrict the alcohol business, but finally, everyone could get a drink.

Unfortunately, many of those old laws are still on the books. Massachusetts, for example, has the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, an arcane liquor licensing system that was created because the state feared that Boston would descend into unruly Catholic drunkenness. Instead of letting each community decide how many bars and restaurants are appropriate for their area, the ABCC divvies up licenses based on population. As the largest city in the state, Boston has the most liquor licenses, boasting 675 full licenses, and 355 for beer and wine. Nearby cities, such as Cambridge and Somerville, meanwhile, have far less:

That seems reasonable until you realize that some cities, like Boston, surge with extra population daily, from commuters, tourists, and conference-goers — not to mention the number of suburbanites who come into the city for entertainment and dining. This next chart is more relevant, in showing the actual number of residents to apportioned to each full liquor license:

Under the rules of the ABCC, Boston, Somerville, Arlington, and Meford all have a bit more than 900 residents to each liquor license. Cambridge’s rate is far lower: The city only has 688 residents to each liquor license. Why? Because clever Cambridge got an exception from the ABCC board, allowing the community to distribute as many licenses as they see fit. Cambridge has decided that awarding more licenses than the ABCC typically allows is good for business — and the last time we checked, the city hadn’t descended into debauchery. Instead, it’s home to a thriving, adventurous restaurant scene.

To be fair, Governor Deval Patrick, with the support of Mayor Thomas Menino, tried to grant Boston an exception earlier in the year, but that bill still hasn’t passed. A little over a week ago, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curatone also called for an exception for his community. For both Boston and Somerville, the problem is clear: Until they can increase the number of restaurant licenses, Cambridge will keep eating — and drinking — their lunches.

Which brings us back to the restrictive system of the ABCC and the perverse economy it’s created; it’s not Prohibition, but shenanigans abound. State senator Dianne Wilkerson and city councilman Chuck Turner were both convicted on bribery charges related to liquor licensing. Liquor licenses are now sold in Boston for up to $450,000, a sum that prices out independent restaurants and assures that most of the new eateries we’ll see are backed by big-time investors or corporations. We have nothing against Legal Sea Foods — the new Harborside restaurant is stunning — but it’s a behemoth, not a new neighborhood restaurant. Meanwhile, Steve Grossman, the state treasurer and head of the ABCC board, will continue to collect obscene sums of money from the liquor lobby. Last week, everyone flipped out when the Boston Globe reported that Grossman hauled in $45,000 at a fundraising party thrown by Stephen V. Miller, the powerful liquor lawyer (and subject of a 2009 profile in Boston magazine), and Ralph Kaplan, the owner of Kappy’s Liquor. That sum counted as almost a quarter of Grossman’s total fundraising since he took office in January.

People decried the conflict of interest — Grossman is collecting money from the very people he’s supposed to be regulating — but really: Why the hell is everyone so surprised? The ABCC is a relic. Let’s leave it in the dustpan of history — just like Prohibition.

  • Hanadi

    Great article. I absolutely agree. This system stifles many potential new restaurant owners. Every new restaurant I see recently is from a big wig company, no little guy here. It’s issues like this (and the 2am bar closings) that put us behind cities like New York. Let’s get with the times Boston…

  • Bill Finn

    Your comments concerning prohibition are right on and ought to make us think what other lessons history teaches us. Our war on drugs has created a worldwide culture of crime around drugs, while not doing a thing to interrupt the supply to those who are in the market. Legalize it, regulate it, create revenue and taxpaying jobs. We should learn from history, not repeat it.

  • Jason Blanchette

    The documentary didn’t discuss regulations that arose out of a result of prohibition, but these regulations are an important result of prohibition. Near the end of prohibition John Rockefeller Jr. commissioned an international study to investigate regulations that reduced harms of alcohol. The investigators recognized that one of the most effective government policies was to provide limited, but legal, access to alcohol. Too many liquor licenses, and the binge drinking in that society rises. And further, today, establishment owners can’t just over-serve someone and send them out into society. They’re held accountable to government regulations. A well ran ABC would protect society and level the playing field for all establishments by equally enforcing the liquor laws. Your issue here in this article isn’t with the mere existence of an ABC, but rather it is with what you describe as a broken system.

    • Trevor

      Society doesn’t need to be protected from itself by you. Leave people alone, their choices are their concern.

  • Antonio Avanti, (aka)

    Steve Grossman; He takes rediculous contrbutions & Donations… This is why City of Lawrence City Board Alcohol + Mayor, along w/ City Councilors, Restaurants Bars & Clubs… They all Laugh their way to the bank… plus are breaking so many rules-laws, NO real transparent-regular Inspecions oversight, by Sate Law Enforcement, ABCC Boston is stuck between Steve Gro$$man & the disrespectful, NOT law abiding Alcohol Lisence holder$ !
    ***Media: Visit City of Lawrence-Downtown expensive to enter plus consume alcohol Night spots, they operate as if it were safe Boston.
    The Poorest City; unsafest doing very well, w/ tax credits, Millions of tax monies & loans, by Deval Patrick Democratics Administration.
    The Drug trade has allowed these Owners, to do very good investments in Remodeling yearly… About 5-7 Bars Restaurants have $TRIPPER$ on weekdays Mon.-Thurs. / iLLEGAL GAMING Clubs….
    City is being operated as a third world Empire sex trade-Gaming for Finacially well to do.
    ***It’s as if, Mayor Lantigua State REPRESENTATIVES awarded them Casinos style Permits & CLANDE$TINE Brothels!