Bars are a seemingly ubiquitous part of the American landscape. Even small towns with one stoplight probably have a local watering hole where workers can let off steam after a long day or shoot the breeze with their fellow regulars. In addition to local dives, larger towns and cities may also be home to sports bars, cocktail lounges, wine bars, and breweries. (Here is the best dive bar in every state.)
This hasn’t always been the case, however. For 13 years starting in 1920, the sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited in the United States, and thousands of formerly legal saloons shut down. When the 21st Amendment ended the ban, the federal government left it up to each state to determine how they would handle the sale of alcohol. This has led to a diverse landscape of laws and drinking establishments – or lack thereof – in different pockets of the country.
To determine the states with the most bars – both in total numbers and per capita – 24/7 Tempo reviewed “Which States Have the Most Bars?,” published by VinePair, a digital media company covering “drinks and the experiences you have with a glass in hand.” Restaurants and cafes that also sell alcohol are not included.
VinePair sourced their data, which is for 2019 – the most recent year for which data is available – from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Economic Census and Annual Survey of Manufactures and the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s Survey of Current Business, and from records from other government agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration. 24/7 Tempo added estimated 2020 population figures for adults over 21, released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Logically, the states with the most bars tend to be the states with higher populations, including New York, California, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania. But when adjusted for the population of adults over 21, many of the states with the most bars per capita are the states with the lowest populations in the nation, including North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. Wisconsin is an outlier near the top of the list, having both a relatively high population and a huge number of bars. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wisconsin is also home to some of America’s drunkest cities.
Some states that appear to have fewer bars actually just have more “restaurants” that serve as drinking establishments – and also happen to sell a limited selection of food – in order to get around strict state licensing laws. This is a result of the post-Prohibition regulations that certain states put in place to limit and discourage the sale of alcohol. Seventeen states, including New Hampshire, Virginia, and Utah, control the sale of distilled spirits – and sometimes even beer and wine.
Most states decided to let each county decide how to handle alcohol sales, and as a result, some have a high number of dry counties. These states are mainly in the South, where Christian values including temperance are enforced. Mississippi (which has 12 dry counties), Tennessee, and Kansas are dry states by default and require counties to specifically authorize the sale of alcohol. There are also many dry counties in Kentucky (15) and Arkansas (34), with a handful each in Texas, Florida, and Georgia, and one in South Dakota.
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