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Some places have offered drive-through cocktails for years, such as New Orleans’ famed drive-through frozen daiquiri stands. Other states relaxed their laws to let restaurants sell cocktails to-go during the COVID quarantines. All told, 17 states now allow some form of permanent to-go alcoholic beverages. How can all this margarita madness be legal? Well, depending on where you live, a to-go cocktail in your car or truck’s cupholder could make you a target for a DUI traffic stop–or be illegal on its own. And it all might come down to packaging.

Can restaurants serve alcohol to-go?

The COVID quarantine changed many aspects of modern life, including whether restaurants can serve alcohol to-go. At the height of the pandemic, 39 states allowed cocktails to go. Some states have made these laws permanent.

A meal and a cocktail packaged to go on the counter of a sports bar in Rhode Island, a window visible in the background.
Meal and cocktail to go | Maddie Meyer via Getty Images

Mike Whatley, a lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, told, “without the pandemic, it would have taken five to 10 years or more to have this many states pass laws that change alcohol policy so significantly.” He said it may be one of the biggest shifts in the country’s liquor laws since Prohibition ended one hundred years ago.

Some municipalities even designated outdoor social districts where you can enjoy to-go meals and cocktails from nearby districts. Others say you must take your drinks directly home before opening them. Restaurants with drive-through windows may sell to-go cocktails to put in your cupholder, often sealed even if the seal is just tape.

In eight states, someone in your car could conceivably open one of these cocktails on the way home. In one state, the driver could even sip from a to-go cocktail without breaking the law. But in every state, you could get in serious trouble if you’re not careful.

Can you get in trouble for driving with a to-go cocktail?

If you are drinking a to-go cocktail and are over the legal limit (0.08% blood alcohol content), you are breaking the law in every state. In most states, even your passengers can’t drink from their to-go cocktails while you drive. And if the drink is improperly sealed by the restaurant, a police officer could theoretically ticket you.

A woman holds two plastic bags filled with alcoholic to-go cocktails and oranges.
Bartender packaging cocktails to-go | Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The state of Mississippi allows drivers to sip alcohol. But if the driver’s blood alcohol content exceeds 0.08%, they are breaking the law. The states of Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia allow passengers to drink alcohol. But note that in Virginia, the presence of any open containers means police can ask the driver to prove they are sober.

In every state, a to-go cocktail from a restaurant could conceivably get you in trouble, even if you think you are following the letter of the law. This is because the laws are written for “sealed” alcohol, booze that is still in its original container. According to these older laws, you can go to the store, buy alcohol, and drive it home like any other grocery–without opening it. But a to-go cup with a cocktail from your favorite restaurant can be more problematic. “Sealed” may be up to the discretion of the police officer, and you could get in trouble for allowing an “unsealed” drink in your vehicle–even if the bartender put tape over the cup’s straw hole.

In every state, if you can lock your cocktail to go in your trunk and out of reach, you should be all right. Many establishments have also begun to package them in vacuum-sealed containers or aluminum cans to be tamper-proof.

Buying brand-new, sealed containers of alcohol and driving it home is legal in every state. So it’s unsurprising that 30 states allow some form of drive-through alcohol sales to make this errand more convenient. Of course this does not mean you can open one of your new brews on the drive home.

Next, find out which states allow you to ride in the bed of a pickup truck or see New Orleans’ drive through daiquiri stands for yourself in the video below:


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