Boilermaker ban plan stirs debate in Nebraska

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s liquor cops want to wipe a 70-year-old ban against mixing booze and beer off the books, saying the original intent of the law that makes drinks like boilermakers illegal disappeared long ago.

But anti-drinking activists suspect another motive: Making it crystal clear that so-called “alcopops” like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice are allowed in the state and that they can be taxed as beer.

“If they’re looking through the statutes for archaic laws, it’s odd this is the only one that came up,” said Diane Riibe, director of Omaha-based Project Extra Mile. “The commission is going to want to clean up state statutes that they think hinder their case.”

Project Extra Mile, which fights underage drinking, is one of several plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit that challenges the state Liquor Control Commission’s decision to allow flavored alcoholic beverages, or so-called “alcopops” to be classified as beer instead of hard liquor. Flavored alcoholic beverages start out as brewed malt beverages but are flavored with distilled spirits.

The plaintiffs use the current law banning the mixture of booze and beer in its lawsuit challenging the state rule that classifies the drinks as beer.

Nebraska is the only state with such a ban.

Classifying the beverages as hard liquor could ban them from beer-only stores, such as some mini-markets, and increase the state taxes assessed from 31 cents a gallon to $3.75 a gallon.

The state rule that project Extra Mile and other groups challenge requires that the state classify alcoholic beverages the same way as the federal government. The federal government classifies the so-called alcopops as beer.

The state senator who introduced the bill to remove the beer-and-booze ban, and the director of the state Liquor Control Commission, said the dispute over alcopops did not prompt the bill.

“That’s not the intent,” said Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, who added that he didn’t understand how removing the ban would undermine Project Extra Mile’s arguments against alcopops. The Liquor Control Commission suggested the ban be removed because it no longer makes any sense to have it, he said.

“A Long Island ice tea has four or five shots of alcohol, so what’s the difference if you put a shot of whiskey in a beer?” he said.

It’s unclear exactly why the beer-and-booze ban was enacted right after Prohibition, but the director of the Liquor Control Commission has a theory based on research he has done.

Hobert Rupe said it might have been a way to help ensure widespread liquor-by-the-drink bans in Nebraska and that followed Prohibition were followed. At the time, it was popular to inject liquor into nonalcoholic beer using syringes stuck into the corks of nonalcoholic beer bottles.

That way, drinkers could enjoy an alcoholic drink while making it look as if they were sipping on a nonalcoholic beer.

“It’s an archaic law that just hung around,” Rupe said.

It’s also a law rarely enforced: Rupe said most bartenders don’t know that it exists, and when police see the law being broken they just give warnings.