Remember when you hit the double digits, the excitement of seeing that car in your driveway at 16, and the “turning legal” party you threw on your 18th birthday?
But when it comes to your 21st, you draw a blank – especially between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. More and more students are throwing 21st birthday celebrations
at the beginning of the night and throwing up their celebrations at the end. Turning 21 has become a rite ofpassage that is as hyped as a wedding or the birth of a first child.
It became such a big deal that the U.S. Department of Transportation threatened to reduce state highway funding if their minimum drinking ages weren’t set to 21. What came to be known as the “National Minimum Drinking Age Act” was officially signed into law in 1984. Under the law, all 50 states, including 19 which previously had set the minimum drinking age lower than 21, were forced to comply in order to maintain highway funding.
Twenty-three years later, turning 21 rules the monumental birthday throne. Not even the big “five-o” can compare. And while celebrating your 21st can be a whole lot of fun, for some who take it to the extreme, it can be a painful health and safety risk.
Taking 21 shots of alcohol in one night is the most popular, and most extreme, ritual
of turning 21. Besides being a major health concern, consuming 21 shots in a bar setting is illegal. According to Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board policy, bartenders are required to stop serving alcohol to patrons once they become visibly intoxicated. Technically, bars are prohibited from allowing patrons to “get drunk.”
“The state law says that a bar cannot serve somebody after showing signs of intoxication,” said Officer Todd Merlina of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement. “If you drink 21 shots really quick, you’re not going to show intoxication right away, but you’re going to die once you leave the bar.”
On the night of your 21st, don’t expect to drink until you drop at Finnegans Wake.
“We recognize it’s an important milestone
in their life, but as far as the drinking is concerned we do not encourage nor do we permit any over drinking on their birthday here, even if they have a driver,” said Mike Driscoll, co-owner of the bar and restaurant at 537 3rd St., on Spring Garden Street.
“Our bartenders are trained by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in server training, and if one of their customers starts to order more than one or two shots, they would stop serving that individual.”
Twenty-one-year-olds can’t celebrate with alcohol when they’re 20. A myth about when a person can enter a bar surrounds the 21st birthday event. It even had Driscoll stumped -people would demand entrance to Finnegans two or three hours before their 21st.
The myth has been debunked, and unfortunately for early 21st celebrators, the festivities cannot begin until the clock strikes midnight.
“There’s this myth that you can get in two hours before, and we had heard that, too. We investigated it with the liquor control board and we found out that’s not true,” Driscoll said. “I called to make sure I wasn’t wrong. And they told me midnight is midnight is midnight.”
According to Merlina of the Pennsylvania State Police, the “Cinderella rule” reigns supreme for legal 21st birthdays.
“It would be the midnight hour, when the date turns to your birthday, is when you’re permitted to consume alcohol when you’re 21 years old,” he said.
So according to state law, a person whose birthday is on March 13 can legally enter a bar and consume alcohol at midnight that morning, but cannot do so up to 11:59 p.m. on March 12. At Mad River on 126 Chestnut St., if a person is intoxicated the night of their 21st, they can be refused entry at the door even once midnight has passed.
“It’s a policy of business. You can turn down anyone at the door as a proprietor of business, and you can refuse the right to serve anybody,” said Dan Althause, bartender and manager at the Old City sports bar. Althause said that Philadelphia bars have refused entrance to a person the night of their birthday.
He refused to name any establishments that followed this house rule, but added that Mad River does allow just turned 21-year-olds into the bar beginning at midnight on their birthday.
“A lot of places will say you can come in the next night. They’re sticklers even about those two hours [after midnight] because they don’t want people coming in and getting retarded during those two hours,” Althause said.
Merlina agreed, explaining that it is not a violation of state law for a bar to refuse entry to a person on the night of their 21st.
“Every bar has to comply with state regulations. But bars are also allowed to have their own house rules. And as long as it’s not a violation of state or federal law, then it is permitted. They can be strict if they wish,” he said.
The Draught Horse, at 1431 Cecil B. Moore Ave., is not one of these strict establishments, allowing patrons entrance to the bar at midnight on their 21st, according to bar manager Ron Drake. With 18,600 liquor licensed establishments
in the state of Pennsylvania, students turning 21 have little problem getting to a bar – it’s just getting home that has become the issue.
“If someone wants to enjoy themselves and get involved going to a bar and club, of which they are entitled to when they’re 21,” said Merlina, “They don’t have to act like it’s the first time they’ve ever done it.”
Sammy Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.