All the Boston Blue Laws That Keep You From Drinking (And Where They Came From)

The Puritans were real killjoys. No plays! No Christmas! Realizing that some people were still somehow managing to have fun on Sundays, which as the Sabbath was supposed to be entirely devoted to worship, they legislated quite a lot of normal weekend behavior -- from drinking to wife-kissing. These came to be known as "blue laws" (for some reason) and have long cramped Boston’s style. But while the Puritans may have planted the seeds, we can’t blame them for all of our current restrictions on having a good time.

We don't get to enjoy Sunday morning Champagne runs

OK, this one is in fact the Puritans’ fault. While liquor laws have relaxed over the past few centuries, stores still can’t sell booze before 10am on Sundays. Even Champagne! For mimosas! And they think we’re supposed to be grateful because the starting bell was noon until 2014.

It is literally illegal for the bar to offer you a deal, please stop asking

So apparently encouraging people to drink more alcohol is bad or something. Massachusetts forbids businesses from promoting delicious, delicious booze with happy hour promotions. This means no two-for-one deals, $5 margarita Mondays, or other marks of a civilized society. In 1984, then-governor Michael Dukakis passed the "Happy Hour" law as a response to a drunk driving tragedy; the culprit had been abusing a happy hour special and the state figured enough was enough.

Sav-Mor, a Boston-area institution on account of low prices and wisdom | Flickr/Matt Chan

"Getting the next round" is totally not a thing here

Boston bartenders will frown at you if you try to order group refills. One person can’t get more than two drinks at once. At least this makes it easy to excuse yourself from getting the next round for your office outing. You just know Jasmine from Sales was going to order the 20-year Scotch on your tab. If you do manage to over imbibe at this responsible rate, however, at least you can be grateful that doing so won’t get you tossed in jail like it would have 50 years ago. It took the state until 1971 to repeal a centuries-old ban on public drunkenness. Of course, now there’s Facebook, so... kind of a wash?

beer in boston
Flickr/Margaret Collins

This state will totally look down its nose at you for not having more friends

Alas for drowning your sorrows, in Massachusetts you can't buy a pitcher of beer unless there's more than two people in your party. Technically, this is an extension of the two-drink limit per person, but it’s still a bummer if you just want to settle in for a seven-hour Sox game without having to flag your server down every 20 minutes. But you can order a whole bottle of wine (as long as you’re also ordering a meal), so all is not entirely lost.

At least it's getting less judgy

Massachusetts jumped right on board with Prohibition. Sometimes it feels like the state even longs for those days. Eight towns in Massachusetts are still completely dry, meaning that no alcohol can be sold at all, and many more only allow the sale of alcohol when accompanied by a meal. That means no bars and no liquor stores. Still, as recently as 2000, there were a full twenty dry towns, so at least we’re making progress!  

beer pong

Beer pong is verboten

Happy hour legislation includes a prohibition on promoting alcohol with drinking games. This was made unfortunately, abundantly clear when a bar had its liquor license suspended for allowing beer pong to be played on its premises. (Cornhole’s still fine.) But recently, Mass residents have been revved up about what seems to be a double standard: The state’s newly approved casinos will be able to serve free drinks on the gaming floor... but there’s no movement to change the legislation that still applies to regular old drinking holes.

You need to actually be from here to drink here

If you’ve ever run to the liquor store with an out-of-state friend, or if you’ve just stood in line at enough pakkies, you’ll have intimate experience with this gem. Massachusetts allows six forms of ID to be used as legal age identification in a court of law, and retailers can choose to only accept those six forms at checkout -- which include MA state IDs, US passports, and US military ID. Some retailers do accept other forms, but many smaller establishments do not. So if all you’ve got on you is a New York state driver’s license or British passport -- well, none for you.

No, seriously, take your friends’ car keys

While we’re certainly not in favor of drinking and driving -- in fact, that’s a Bad Decision we can take a very solid stance against -- we’re not sure that the answer to this problem is suing people who aren’t drinking and driving. Under what’s called the "Social Host Law," hosts can be held liable for their intoxicated guests’ behavior. This means that you can be sued for damages as well as your idiot friend if he makes poor, tequila-fueled life decisions on the way home from your party. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court first recognized this type of liability in 1986. Think a modern court might change its mind? Nope. The court reaffirmed its position on the matter in a 2012 case, and pundits across the state rejoiced.

beer on a boat

Two if by sea

That whole drink-limit thing applies aboard ships as well as to landlubbers. In fact, No. 43 on the list of the Massachusetts liquor control commission’s Most Frequently Asked Questions: "Can a licensed ship chandler buy liquor from a package store to fulfill an emergency call from a captain out at sea who is running short of liquor and needs an immediate delivery?"

Translation: Massachusetts fields a lot of at-sea emergencies that can only be resolved with immediate booze delivery. As our license plates say, this is "The Spirit of America."

Sign up here for our daily Boston email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun the Hub has to offer.

Margaret Collins grew up in a dry town just outside Boston and definitely never observed anyone drinking there. She went on to defy her Puritanical roots by working for years in the wine industry. Check out her musings on food, life, and writing at Salt Sweet Bitter. Gramming at @mec623, Yelping at margareteats.