By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jan 06, 2005 at 5:39 AM

It wasn't that long ago that it was easy to buy liquor in Brew City before celebrating a "legal" birthday, and during a recent editorial meeting, the OMC staff reminisced about the days when under-21 drinking was alarmingly easy to do.

Becky Roozen
Having a fake I.D. is one thing, but being afraid to use it and looking like you're 17 don't exactly complement the extra plastic in your wallet. So, being underage, I rarely took the risk of painting the town red as "Stephanie." But one of the few times I did became my last, in a hurry. As all my of-age friends lined up at one of the usual Water Street hotspots -- squeezing me between them, to bury me in valid I.D.s, of course -- the intimidation sank in and must have risen to my face. Finally, it was my turn to hand the big man in a little shirt my license. I did. But that was the only thing I did right. He asked me when my birthday was. I forgot. He asked me where I lived. I forgot. And not long after that -- with half of my friends inside and half behind me -- Stephanie's I.D. found a new home in the bouncer's back pocket and I was sent home, never to return to the wannabe-21-year-old bar scene again, at least not until I was 21.

Jeff Sherman
Getting beer was no problem for us underage and adventurous Tosa kids. We'd take Mom's station wagon Downtown, always with three or four in tow for that safety-by-numbers feeling. Quik Pik was always an easy score and, until it got flooded with underage MU students, Danny's was a good place for a quick 12-er too. Not any more, though. If we didn't want to drive, it was over to a place we'll call "Bucky and Lev's." They loved us and we needed little confidence to buy there since they hardly ever carded and usually helped with suggestions and special deals.

Molly Snyder Edler
In the late '80s, we used to pile into Lisa's Pinto and buy beer from a Brady Street liquor store that now cards heavily. We also slurped sweet, slushy drinks at a South Side lounge and cans of PBR at a joint on Oakland Avenue. I had a fake I.D. that I found on the bathroom floor of The Landmark that looked nothing like me, except that the girl in the photo and I both had mountainous hairdos. She was also a good 50 pounds heavier, but somehow it routinely got my 19-year-old booty into lots of East Side watering holes, even a corner lounge on North Avenue. It also worked like a laminated charm when I wanted to buy Benson & Hedges menthol 100s in Shorewood or clove cigarettes or "whippets" at Starship when it was on Oakland and Edgewood. Ah, youth. So many brain cells, so little good sense.

Andy Tarnoff
Going to college in Washington, D.C. during the Marion Barry era meant that anything went (when your mayor is caught for smoking crack, somehow underage drinking didn't matter too much). So one summer, I thought I could try my hand at age 20, back in Milwaukee, on a Brady Street bar crawl. I won't name names, but one corner tavern let us in and proudly served us as many 63-cent Old Styles as we cared to order. When one of the two patrons present in the bar asked the bartender if he planned on carding us, he actually replied, "No, this guy looks like he's 20. It's OK." I could barely contain my amazement that he not only guessed my exact age, but didn't care that it was under 21. I made it through most of the bars that night uncarded, with the exception of Thurman's. They just didn't buy the idea that “we left our I.D.s at home.” Yeah, right.

With drunk driving laws tighter than ever and legally-drunk blood alcohol levels lower than ever, there is tremendous pressure on the alcohol industry to sell responsibly. The biggest crackdown has arguably been on underage drinkers, and one liquor store owner said the only way to keep your company's nose clean is to card everyone.

Yes, everyone.

This is exactly the policy of the Pick 'N Save Metro Market that recently opened on Van Buren Street. Although Roundy's corporate headquarters did not return OMC's calls, one cashier said he was instructed to card everyone, whether they look 18 or 80.

Groppi's in Bay View also has a stringent spirit-selling policy, but one with a little more wiggle room.

"We card anyone who looks like they're under 50. If someone is obviously a senior citizen, we don't card them, but anyone else, we do," says Katie Nehring, store manager.

Koppa's on Farwell has a similar rule of thumb, but their magic number is a decade younger. "We card anyone under 40 years of age," says owner Ken Koppa.

And even though Otto's -- a local chain of seven liquor stores throughout Greater Milwaukee -- says they card anyone who looks under 30, two locations feature age-activated cash registers.

The company also keeps very tight records of who was able to buy alcohol -- and who was denied. That way, when someone is denied at one location, they are in the system and will not be allowed to buy at another.

"It's definitely tricky. There are women out there who are 35 but look 21, so whenever we're in question, we card," says Dave Luebke, the general manager of Otto's for 33 years. "There's a lot of pressure on the industry these days."

Luebke says Otto's routinely sends secret shoppers into its stores to test employees and make sure they're carding. If an employee doesn't ask for I.D., she or he is given a red card and a possible termination.

"We have a really good record," he says. "Our Brown Deer location, for example, has only issued one red card in four years."

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required all states to raise their drinking age to 21, and states that did not comply faced a reduction in highway funds under the Federal Highway Aid Act. Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation has determined that all states are in compliance with this act.

Wisconsin's drinking age officially went from 18 to 19 in 1983 and was raised to 21 in 1986.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.