Cultural Commentator

The Drunkest State In the Country Isn’t What You Think—Here’s Why

Cultural Commentator

The Drunkest State In the Country Isn’t What You Think—Here’s Why


If someone were to ask you what the most beer-soaked state in the country is, what would you guess? Maybe one with an iconic drinking man’s city? Illinois, or Massachusetts say, home to broad-necked, blue-collar types, or staggering Irishmen? Louisiana, perhaps, where the taps flow freely day and night? Maybe Florida, because how else could you stomach living there without a solid, perpetual buzz?

Good guesses all, but it’s actually North Dakota, according to numbers recently released by Bloomberg, who point to the Roughrider State as number one in most beer consumption per capita, at 45.8 gallons a year, and biggest increase in beer consumption from 2011 to 2012, up 9.45%. North Dakota also leads the country in the number of bars per capita, another recent study found, with one for every 1,620 residents. (For comparison, number 50 Virginia, has one per 64,773). Somewhat more ignobly, the state also shows up regularly at the top of such lists for most binge drinking and teenage drinking.

So what’s the reason for all of that? It’s a perfect storm of factors, actually, with the state’s cultural roots, geography, and a staggering population explosion due to energy sector job creation making for a thirsty population.

I asked a few of the state’s industry types to explain what they thought was behind the surge in suds. Like so many other times throughout history, one possible explanation among many amounts to “blame the Germans.”

“I think we start with a strong beer culture,” Todd Sattler, co-owner of Laughing Sun Brewing Company in Bismarck, one of only a handful of brewers in the state explained. “The old Germans and Russians that came over and drank beer there wanted to continue to do it here, and they didn’t have any place to do it other than if they made it.”

There was long a conflict between that robust drinking stock and the more temperate side of the state, says Dale Zimmerman, owner of the nearby Peacock Alley, a bar in business for over 80 years. It’s a conflict documented by a multi-part series on the state’s relationship with alcohol in the Bismarck Tribune. “Look at a map and North Dakota is divided into two: the east side is Scandinavian, the west is German and Russian. Part of their culture is to drink beer and alcohol, the Scandinavians not so much. But the eastern part always had all the people.”

That long made it hard for the state to relax its traditionally restrictive drinking laws, he says. When North Dakota joined the Union in 1889, it was as a dry state. It wasn’t until 1932, around the end of Prohibition, that they even allowed alcohol at all. In the interim, speakeasies, known as “blind pigs,” were prevalent, and the proximity to Canada made bootlegging whiskey easier. Decades later, when the other surrounding states had a drinking age of 18, North Dakota still prohibited drinking for anyone under 21.

That history of forbearance has reverberated, he thinks. “As a result we have all these statistics that are negative: binge drinking, teenager drinking…As soon as you make something taboo, people can’t have it, that’s when they want to try it.”

That’s particularly troublesome when you then open the floodgates. The prices for liquor licenses and brewing licenses have come down sharply to a fraction of what you might expect to pay in other states.

In Bismarck, until recent years, the law said you had to have at least a block’s distance between establishments serving alcohol. “Bismarck got rid of that law, because the citizens were demanding that we have more franchise type restaurants move into our community,” Zimmerman says. Another law tying the number of liquor licenses to population was also relaxed with the introduction of restaurant licenses, freeing up more for business that are also selling food. When he bought his place three years ago, there were four restaurants and bars in downtown Bismarck. “So it took 100 years to get to four. In the last year and a half we’re up to 18. We’ve seen an explosion in bars and restaurants in this little three block area. It’s pretty exciting to be a part of and to watch.”

Another possible factor in all the drinking could be the weather, although there’s disagreement on that depending on who you talk to. “The general anecdotal reason given around here is that there’s nothing else to do in North Dakota (especially in the winter) so people go to bars,” says the Tribune’s Jason Heupel, although he doesn’t entirely buy it himself, pointing instead like others, in part, to the German heritage.

“It’s cold here in the winter. Some might say there’s nothing else to do but sit in a bar and drink. But I don’t know that I’d attribute it much to that phenomenon,” Settler agrees. “We get outside and do a lot in the winter. I know there’s a perception that’s the only thing to do on a winter day, but I don’t think that’s true. We have great summer, spring and fall, Bismarck is on the Missouri River, there are lot of outdoor activities.”

But, coincidentally, all of those activities happen to be well-suited for bringing beer along.

“When there’s a blizzard, our bar is packed,” Jeremy Tjon of Empire Liquors and Tavern in Fargo, another one of the oldest bars in the state says. “You’d think people would stay home where it’s safe, but they flock to the bars. They don’t want to be cooped up, they want to be out with their buddies. When I was 21 I did it too.”

Twenty-somethings I reached out to from the area explained things a bit more frankly. “Put simply: North Dakota is a fucking desolate wasteland of nothing. All there is to do is drink,” said one.

“I think beer consumption in North Dakota is high because it’s the cheapest way to get drunk and thus the cheapest way you can escape a boring reality with barely any creative stimulation,” said a second. “It’s freezing for most of the year so you hang out in someone’s house, drink, do tons of meth, prescription drugs without a script, fuck and watch TV.”

Perhaps, although that sounds a lot like how any young person would describe where they come from. She went on: “Even in the nicer weather there’s barely any festivals, museums, skate parks, shows, theatre, good restaurants…. North Dakota has high job growth and all these people are heading over to find jobs and live cheaply but there’s nothing to keep them entertained except 2 for 1 Long Island Iced Teas.”

Keeping people entertained is a problem that’s gotten a lot harder lately, mostly because there are so many more of them. In 2012 North Dakota led the country in at least one more promising statistic, sitting atop the job creation index for the fourth year in a row. That’s because of an influx of energy sector workers flooding in to meet the demand of the fracking boom. The area around Williston, where much of the purported billions of barrels oil can be found, can barely keep up with the new arrivals. Thousands of new housing units are being built every year in the state with the highest population growth in the country: a 4% jump in two years according to 2012 Census numbers, as compared to 1.7% nationwide. Unemployment rates have plummeted. Like in other frontier states, the idea of work hard, then drink hard has strong roots in North Dakota. Oil workers, you may safely assume, work up a pretty decent thirst on their lengthy jags. As with any rush of workers to an area, the service sector has followed, with restaurants and bars and strip clubs trying to fill the demand for what working men do when they aren’t working, although they can barely keep up – no one wants to work for the comparatively miniscule wages at a restaurant when compared to oil jobs.

Perhaps only slightly less thirsty than oil workers are college students. In the more populous, student-dominated Fargo, where tens of thousands of young people descend on the city each year, there’s been an increase in bars as well, says Tjon. “Just in Fargo itself, the largest city, in our downtown location we have about 20 bars within one block of each other,” he says. Keep in mind downtown itself is about 12 block radius total. “That’s a lot of bars in a small area.”

Of course, that’s still a comparative small number compared to a more populous state, as Zimmerman points out. “There are only two states with less people than us. The statistic that’s really misleading is the most bars per capita. I was just in New Orleans on Bourbon Street, and I’m pretty sure there are more bars on Bourbon Street than in all of the North Dakota.”

Yes, but with two counties in the state ranked among the top five in population growth in the country, perhaps it won’t be long before North Dakota makes up a lot of that distance. People may be traveling there for the jobs now, but much like in the old west, once they get there, they’re going to need something to do in their downtime.

img via National Geographic.