The Stranger had a 10th-anniversary staff party at Re-bar last week. It was a drunken affair.

While it's hardly surprising that things got rowdy at a Stranger staff party (one previous staff blowout featured airborne trash cans), this year's blood-alcohol level is actually newsworthy. The hard liquor at Re-bar, which had been restricted by the state to only selling beer and wine until it scored a coveted "spirits" license in February, represents a happy ending in what has been the central regulatory booze issue in Seattle during the past 10 years: where one could or couldn't buy a nice, stiff drink.

Re-bar, located off Boren Avenue in the industrial no man's land heading into downtown, has always been what the state officially considered a "tavern"--licensed to serve beer and wine only. Since I don't drink beer or wine, I haven't had much cause to go to Re-bar. (And I certainly wouldn't ever have considered hitting on Nick Licata without a few glasses whiskey in my system. I am straight, after all.)

Re-bar, like all other bars in Washington, is regulated by the Washington State Liquor Control Board (LCB). The LCB, run by three governor-appointed board members, has an annual budget of $67 million and more than 1,000 employees (including nearly 90 full-time enforcement agents), and regulates every drop of booze sold in the state. It operates 158 liquor stores and contracts out with another 160. It decides how much booze costs and what brands are available; and--as is the case with Re-bar--the LCB decides which spots are allowed to sell hard liquor and which are not. Thankfully, guidelines determining which bars can and cannot serve booze have thawed, ending what had been a frustrating era for bar owners and patrons alike.

Up until the early 21st century (April 2000, to be exact), when the LCB lubricated its rules and joined the 20th century, the board had two distinct categories for what most people commonly consider "bars." There were "taverns," like Re-bar, and there were "cocktail lounges," like Capitol Hill's Cha-Cha Lounge, where "spirits"--or hard liquor--could be served. In order to have a hard liquor license, the place needed to serve food. (Sandwiches, peanuts, popcorn, nachos, French fries, and jalapeño poppers didn't count.) According to the LCB, to prove its culinary legitimacy a bar needed to serve at least four "complete meals" and have four "required kitchen objects": adequate refrigeration, an oven, a grill, and a broiler.

In April 2000, following a 1997 order from Governor Gary Locke, the LCB retooled these prohibitive and clunky regulations. "We reviewed all of our rules," says Teresa Berntsen, rules coordinator at the LCB, "and we asked, 'Is the rule fair? Does it make sense? Is it unnecessary?'" Now, the LCB only requires bars to have the kitchen equipment necessary to make the food they actually serve. However, they still need to offer four complete meals--jalapeño poppers and other bar snacks still don't count.

The thawing of the LCB isn't exactly analogous to the 21st Amendment (which repealed Prohibition), but it sure feels that way. In Seattle, approximately 35 taverns have converted to hard liquor joints since April 2000 (a 105 percent increase over the two-year period prior to the change). Meanwhile, 38 brand-new hard liquor bars have opened since the changes--making 570 licensed spirit houses in Seattle.

While bars and bar patrons may have won this regulatory standoff, a new set of liquor regulations is rearing its head, setting the stage for the next chapter of "Booze and the Law." In addition to bars, the LCB regulates over-the-counter liquor sales in the state. On March 1, Hilltop--a Tacoma neighborhood beleaguered by public drinking--tapped LCB guidelines to institute the state's first Alcohol Impact Area (AIA), which restricts the sale of certain types of alcohol during certain hours. After any neighborhood like Hilltop meets a series of 11 LCB requirements (including: proving that liquor-store sales are linked to the neighborhood's problems; attempting, for at least six months, and failing to get liquor stores to voluntarily restrict the sale of high-octane alcohol like Thunderbird, King Cobra Malt Liquor, and Busch Ice; and documenting the problem with crime stats, sanitation reports, and emergency medical response data), local authorities can get the Liquor Control Board to define the neighborhood as an AIA.

The Hilltop move was quickly followed by a March 4 announcement from Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. "One of my priorities as mayor is to do more for the neighborhoods," Nickels said in a press release announcing his request to have the LCB turn Pioneer Square into an AIA. Never mind that some other neighborhoods--like Capitol Hill and Belltown--are likely to pick up Pioneer Square's inebriated refugees.

And thus a whole new Pandora's wine box is opened. Liberals will ask: Does restricting booze sales get to the root of the problem? Is it fair to drum out poor drunks while allowing yuppie Pioneer Square bar hoppers to roam (and drive) free? Neighborhood groups--on Capitol Hill, for example--worry that the drunks will migrate. (Capitol Hill is currently in the process of getting an AIA.) And the folks in Pioneer Square, who live with belligerent drunks and the smell of feces and urine, will demand that the LCB act to rescue the neighborhood. Indeed, Nickels' announcement was accompanied by an 11-page report from the Department of Neighborhoods and the Seattle Police Department documenting exactly how fucked-up Pioneer Square is. (It should be noted, though, that Pioneer Square is hardly a neighborhood in decline. It's one of the priciest and most vibrant sets of blocks in the city.)

So, with booze flowing freely in Seattle bars, the next battleground will be in the neighborhood liquor stores. It's not clear how this one will play out, but we'll be watching.

--josh feit