Drinkers of Ohio lost another bit of control of their habit two weeks ago, when it became illegal for large winemakers to ship their product directly to consumers or even to individual retailers in the state.

The state government, through the Department of Commerce's Division of Liquor Control, has always put strict regulations on the beverage industry with permit limits and price controls.

But setting aside the new wine restrictions, passed quietly at the urging of Ohio wineries, how does Ohio treat its alcohol consumers? About average, compared to surrounding states.

We're neither the cheapest nor most expensive, nor the most strictly or most loosely regulated.

And at least we're not Pennsylvania, where the laws (which currently are undergoing a serious legal challenge) have been called the most archaic in the nation.

"Every state does things very differently, so it's hard to compare, but I think we have a pretty good system," said Matt Mullins, spokesman for Ohio's DLC.

Pretty good but -- at least if you like a good, cheap stiff drink -- not nearly as good as West Virginia.

Joe Bollinger, manager of Smoker Friendly's Liquor Plus in Wheeling, W.Va., said he gets more than half of his business from Ohio and Pennsylvania residents. West Virginia's narrow Northern Panhandle is wedged between Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"I get people who come here from as far away as Lake Erie because the prices make it worth the trip," Bollinger said.

Most states include a specific spirits tax in the shelf price of each bottle, then add sales tax at the register. West Virginia adds only a 6 percent sales tax and a 5 percent municipal tax, so its liquor prices are by far the lowest of Ohio's surrounding states.

Kim, a clerk at Party Source in Bellevue, Ky. (just across the border from Cincinnati), said her state probably does well in terms of border flow for alcohol. "I'd say at least 90 percent of our customers come over from Ohio," she said. "Our beer prices are about the same, but I think we do a lot better on liquor because the tax isn't as high."

Apparently, those residents who cross the border to get their booze are undaunted by Ohio law, which does limit what you can bring into the state -- no more than 1 liter of spirits per month, and no beer or wine that's available for purchase here.

Another problem with trying to get a drink in Kentucky is that 54 of its 120 counties have voted themselves dry, banning all alcohol sales. In the remaining "wet" areas, package-store retailers are not allowed to sell groceries of any kind. Grocery stores and gas stations may sell only malt-based beverages. And no sales are allowed on Sunday except by site-specific referendum.

West Virginia and Michigan place few restrictions on the type of business that can obtain a retail sales permit for sales by the bottle or case, and Ohio has relaxed its restrictions in the last 10 years, allowing more private businesses to contract with the state to be sales agents, Mullins said. Sunday sales are permitted in all three states.

To hear a Michigan retailer tell it, that state has lost its price advantage over Ohio.

"In years gone by, I'd have lots of people coming up from Ohio," said John Zeiler of Zeiler's Market in Temperance, Mich., just north of Toledo. "But now they've made it too expensive here and too complicated. It's just not worth it anymore."

Indiana's law is a bit more detailed in its limits -- banning, for example, the sale of milk or cold soft drinks at liquor stores. Those stores can, however, sell unrefrigerated soft drinks, as long as they don't sell ice. Sunday sales are allowed only at restaurants where the alcohol will be consumed on-site, and the state minimum prices are on the high side of the ledger.

Then there's Pennsylvania, where all wine and liquor must come from state-owned stores. You can get beer only from a distributor -- by the case or keg -- or by the six-pack from a bar (with an 18-beer limit, and usually at a premium price).

Pennsylvania grocery stores have been fighting for years for the right to sell beer, and the case is currently being considered in the courts there.

A representative of the Kentucky Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control, who declined to give her name because she's "not authorized," seemed to have the subject distilled nicely.

"If you look around at all the rules everywhere and try to make any sense of it, you're wasting your time," she said. "Once you realize there's no rhyme or reason, it's a lot easier to think about."

Some examples of price differentials (for 750-ml bottles):

* Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey: West Virginia, $17.75; Kentucky, $17.99; Ohio, $21.15; Indiana, $20.99; Michigan, $21.97; Pennsylvania, $20.49.

* Bacardi 151 rum: West Virginia, $16.41; Kentucky, $17.99; Ohio, $19.80; Indiana, $23.99; Michigan, $20.96; Pennsylvania, $19.99.

* Absolut vodka: West Virginia, $15.99; Kentucky, $18.99; Ohio, $20.50; Indiana, $20.99; Michigan, $19.97; Pennsylvania, $19.99.

* Jose Cuervo tequila: West Virginia, $15.11; Kentucky, $21.99; Ohio, $17.90; Indiana, $18.99; Michigan, $19.97; Pennsylvania, $19.99.


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