We Were Wondering: Why Is 2 a.m. ‘Bar Time’?  

The answer traces back to the ’80s.

When a night out gets especially late, your bartender might call out, “You don’t have to quit drinking, but you can’t stay here.” 

Since 1987, it’s been illegal in Wisconsin for bars and restaurants to serve liquor after 2 a.m. Monday through Friday and 2:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday – though there is no “last call” on New Year’s Eve. (While the same law also forbids selling fermented beverages in an unopened package between midnight and 6 a.m., many municipalities cut off sales at 9 or 10.) 

The law standardized a patchwork of municipal ordinances, and the debate over the proposal came amid the gradual increase in Wisconsin’s legal drinking age (originally 18) to 19 in 1984 and the current 21 in 1986.  State Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) is one of the few sponsors of the closing-time law still around; he was 26 and serving his second term in the Assembly when he signed on as co-sponsor. Carpenter says a number of 18-year-olds died in traffic accidents after driving back to Milwaukee for its 2 a.m. closing time from places like Madison, Racine and Kenosha that had their last calls at 1 a.m.



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“I knew a lot of young people who wanted to extend their drinking serve time,” Carpenter says. “The number of young people killed in alcohol-related crashes was much higher than it is now.” 

Pete Madland, who recently became an adviser after 24 years in leadership roles with the Tavern League of Wisconsin, believes 2 a.m. was a compromise; he recalls some Milwaukee bars wanting a 4 a.m. cutoff time. Madland says the league supported the law. “We were happy that the uniform closing hour passed,” he says. “It saved a lot of lives.”  

Deaths in alcohol-related crashes in Wisconsin have declined by half since 1990, to 167 in 2020. 

Wisconsin’s 2 a.m. bar time is the same as state mandates in Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan. In March, the Michigan House narrowly passed a bill that would allow municipalities to raise the closing time limit to 4 a.m. for bars that request the extension; at press time the Michigan Senate had not acted on the bill. 

In Illinois, municipalities already mandate closing times. Most bars near the Wisconsin border must close at 2 a.m. on weekends, a few at 3. The one anomaly is the city of Lake in the Hills, which is about 50 minutes south of Lake Geneva and permits bars and restaurants to serve liquor until 4 a.m. But with the drive from the Badger State, that’s not much extra time to continue the party, even for those Milwaukeeans so ill-advisedly inclined.

A New Front Against Drunken Driving 

AUTOMAKERS WILL NEED to develop and install devices intended to prevent drunken driving in all their new vehicles under a provision of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill passed
last fall. 

The new equipment could debut in all new 2027 vehicles, 59 years after a similar mandate for seat belts. The technology might include alcohol detection systems or cameras and sensors inside or outside the vehicle.  

Such devices could prevent more than 9,400 drunken driving deaths each year in America, according to a 2020 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Existing technologies and those in development will stop the hazardous driving behavior of people who refuse to make the right choice themselves,” says Alex Otte, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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