When Virginia ended Prohibition in 1934, restaurants and retail stores were allowed once again to sell beer and wine. But sales of distilled spirits were limited, by the bottle, to state-controlled stores managed by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
A yearslong movement to allow restaurants to serve mixed drinks peaked in 1968, when Virginia’s General Assembly was consumed by an emotional debate over what newspaper headline writers dubbed “the whiskey bill.”
Hundreds of citizens on both sides — the wets and the drys — descended on the state capital to champion or condemn proposed legislation that would give each locality in Virginia the option of deciding, by referendum, whether its bars and restaurants should be allowed to sell mixed drinks.
At the time, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union played a key role in the opposition.
“You’ve got the women stirred up and when you’ve got the women stirred up you’ve got trouble,” Aaron Conner, then moderator of the Roanoke Valley Baptist Association, told a House committee. According to newspaper accounts at the time, opponents predicted a rush on bars and saloons, where hard-drinking patrons would overindulge even when served diluted highballs by unscrupulous businesses looking for greater profits.
“Short shot glasses with watered-down whiskey carry more gold than mules ever did,” said William Swartz, a Roanoke businessman.
Others implored the General Assembly to “move Virginia from the archaic backwoods” by allowing the sale of mixed drinks.
In the end, lawmakers opted against a statewide referendum on the issue and instead gave each city and county the option to let their own voters decide. Larger cities were among the first to approve liquor by the drink. The state’s more rural and conservative areas were slower to follow.