Happy Hours Have Returned To Indiana

A Republican move to shut down Hoosier drink specials has been rolled back after 40 years, in an effort to boost bar and restaurant business.
A bartender shaking a cocktail
A bartender at The Hulman shakes a cocktail. Along with all other Indiana businesses, the restaurant at 141 E. Washington St. has been prohibited from offering happy hour specials until a new law kicks in on July 1. Credit: Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

If you’re under 60 years old, you’ve never (legally) had a happy hour drink in Indiana. Since 1985, the common-elsewhere practice of chopping booze prices for the brunch, lunch, or the after-work crowd has been banned across the state, but that all changes on July 1. And all it took was a global pandemic.

“Happy hour” began as a slang term used to describe recreation periods for shipbound soldiers during World War I. Meanwhile, back in the states, Prohibition was raging, and tipplers would tie one on at a speakeasy before heading to a public restaurant, where booze was forbidden. As the war and Prohibition ended, the two concepts met.

Fast forward to the early 1980s, when lobbying group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) enlisted then-President Ronald Reagan in a national push for tighter alcohol laws. State-level happy hour bans followed, including Indiana’s in 1985. Ban sponsor and former Rep. Eric Turner said after its passage, “We did what we intended to do, which was to prevent people from drinking excessively during a short period of time. That is working out exceedingly well.”

Lisa Hutcheson, the vice president of prevention and policy at Mental Health America of Indiana, says studies linking happy hour’s ticking clock to dangerous overconsumption were—and continue to be—a reason to restrict the practice. Patrons are “more likely to drink in excess as a response to happy hour time limits or bar-based drink specials,” she says. 

Taxman Brewing Co. will offer happy hour specials at its CityWay location. Credit: Terry Kirts/Indianapolis Monthly

But by 2016, when then-Rep. Tom Dermody proposed a bill to lift the ban, most states had dropped their restrictions. But his effort still stalled. Now the mayor of LaPorte, Dermody declined to speculate on why the 2024 push against the ban succeeded but says, “In the end, Indiana always does a good job of protecting its businesses.”

Rep. Jake Teshka, who authored the ban-toppling bill, says, “The pandemic really gave us an opportunity to see that it’s unnecessary” to restrict drink specials. “We have office workers who are quickly getting back home to their bedroom communities. Maybe we can keep them out for an hour or two after work,” thus boosting business for places “still struggling to return to pre-Covid levels.”

As part of the new law, happy hours are capped at four hours a day and less than 15 hours a week. They’re also prohibited from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., as are all-you-can-drink or “bottomless” specials.

The law also allows bars and restaurants to sell mixed drinks to go, under some very specific conditions. In the earliest days of the pandemic, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an executive order allowing bars and restaurants to sell alcohol to go, but prepared mixed drinks were still forbidden.

Teshka notes that bars compromised with “cocktail kits” of separate components to be mixed at home. “There was a Tex-Mex place by us that would sell their famous frozen margaritas to go, with the mix in a foam container and a sealed pint of Jose Cuervo.” With the July 1 law, “Now it’s legal to sell those mixed together,” he says.

That doesn’t mean you’re strolling out of a Mass Ave pub with a brimming boilermaker in hand. According to Indiana’s Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, only bars and restaurants with carryout privileges can sell mobile mixed drinks, which must come in a “new, clean, sealable” receptacle free of “perforations or straw holes.” Unapproved containers include disposable soup or condiment vessels, repurposed soda or liquor bottles, or fast-food style to-go cups.

Toasting two generations of the Golden Ace lineage: John, Chuck, Jimmy, and Jim McGinley
The younger members of the Golden Ace’s McGinley family have never lived in a world with legal happy hours. (From right: John, Chuck, Jimmy, and Jim McGinley.) Credit: Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

Carissa Newton, the vice president of marketing for Cunningham Restaurant Group, warns that the relaxed restrictions won’t be a panacea for all that ails the industry. CRG owns bars and restaurants across Indiana, as well as in Kentucky and Ohio, where happy hours are in full swing. “It will obviously impact sales and traffic to the restaurants,” she says her experience suggests. “But I don’t know that it’s going to bring in this huge influx of revenue.” 

Other bar owners still seem nonplussed that after all this time, happy hours are even an option. Jim McGinley, whose family-owned Golden Ace Inn opened four months after Prohibition ended, says, “Sure, we’ll probably do something,” but he adds that they “want to take it slow.” A spokesperson for Taxman Brewing Co. says they’re likely to offer specials between 4 and 6 p.m. at its CityWay (310 S. Delaware St., 317-734-3107) location but says they’re still mulling details.

Alicia Sweet, co-owner of Holy Cross bar Natural State Provisions and King Dough pizza restaurants, says staff at her businesses are “still getting on board” with the service adjustments required by happy hour specials. But with sales down by 15 percent this year alone, Sweet is hopeful the specials can offer an economic boost. 

“It’s cool that it’s starting in the summertime,” she says. “We can open earlier, do a happy hour from 4 to 6, and then, maybe, people will stay for dinner. That’s all we can hope for.”