On the weekend after Thanksgiving, people usually come to Oregon from Washington to buy stuff without paying sales tax.
I drove from Oregon to Washington to get around state liquor laws.
My destination: Rally Pizza. My order: a fennel sausage pie, Caesar salad, roasted vegetables, and two "Little Italy" cocktails. That's bourbon, Aperol, Amaro CioCiaro and fresh lemon juice, premixed in a single Mason jar and packaged in a stapled paper "Cold Sack."
Portland bars and restaurants have been desperate for Oregon to legalize takeout booze. Gov. Kate Brown insists her hands are tied. The ban is written into state law—ORS 471.175 states that "all alcoholic beverages…must be consumed on the licensed premises." While many states, including Washington and California, were able to loosen similar restrictions via emergency executive orders, it's the position of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission that neither the agency nor Brown can do anything without legislative action to revise the statute.
But businesses are getting impatient. Last week, Pearl District gin bar the Botanist threatened to commit an act of "civil disobedience" and sell cocktails to go without state approval. It never happened: The owners called off the protest because simply announcing their intent raised awareness of the issue, and because they could have lost their liquor license.
Co-owner Matt Davidson says he is now putting his hope into House Speaker Tina Kotek's call for Brown to hold a "catastrophic special session" of the Legislature. But there's no guarantee anything will come of that, if it happens at all.
So here I am in Washington, where Gov. Jay Inslee made takeout cocktails legal in May, as part of a larger overall stay-home order. Any establishment in the state with a "spirits, wine and liquor restaurant license" can include cocktails in a takeout order that also includes a "complete meal." The drinks also have to be in a closed container—anything from bottles to Mason jars to sealed bubble tea cups.
Rally Pizza co-owner Shan Wickham says the booze is just an add-on for most customers, not only to their dinner, but to other items Rally sells as a quasi-grocery: eggs, coffee, yeast.
"It has come back a little bit the last couple of weeks, but it's still not a huge part of our revenue stream," she says. "It'll add $20 to $40 to a check that would otherwise have been a couple of pizzas and a salad. It's not a make or break thing for us, but I will certainly take it."
My two Little Italy cocktails totaled $18, transforming what would have been a $42 check to $60, plus a 30% tip. Rally also specializes in boozy milkshakes that go for $20. That's not rocketing any restaurant back into the black, but those extra sales help keep people employed.
Among the forces holding up cocktails to go in Oregon, politically speaking, is the advocacy group Oregon Recovers, which fears it'll cause an increase in alcohol abuse and/or drunken driving. For one thing, Washington law states the drink must be placed in the vehicle out of reach of the driver. And to properly consume my Little Italy—according to instructions tied around the Mason jar—I had to shake it over ice for 20 seconds until "diluted and chilled," pour it over either fresh ice or straight up into a coupe, and finish it with one of two provided dehydrated lemon slices.
I was not going to be doing that in Rally's strip mall parking lot—or anywhere else—before popping onto Highway 14 west and I-5 south. If I just wanted to get hammered, that same $18 would already buy me a whole bottle of bourbon on either side of the Columbia.
For restaurants and their customers, being allowed to sell takeout cocktails isn't about getting people drunk, and it's not even about the money. It's more about replicating whatever social and creative elements of the food business that we possibly can right now—preserving just a little bit of that restaurant experience, both as a customer and a bartender.
Drinking a cocktail you didn't make yourself is delightful. The Little Italy is especially refreshing for a whiskey drink—citrusy, sweet and bitter all at once, with at least one ingredient, the amaro, I'd never have at home without a little forethought. The only other thing I needed to make it feel like I was at a restaurant was the Spoon Pandora channel. It's just too bad I had to pay Washington sales tax on the order.
EAT AND DRINK: Rally Pizza, 8070 E Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver, Wash., 360-524-9000, rallypizza.com. 3-8 pm Monday-Thursday, noon-8 pm Friday-Sunday for curbside pickup or delivery through DoorDash.