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how to get a liquor license

Opening a bar is about more than choosing the perfect beer and liquor list; you have to perfect your cocktail menu, find the best bar POS, and acquire all the restaurant licenses and permits that you need to get out of the way before you can open for business.

In getting caught up in dreaming about all the delicious drinks that one plans to offer, many forget about the extent of the legalities they have to navigate first that can throw a serious wrench in your grand opening plans if they aren’t executed correctly. So when figuring out how to obtain a liquor license, make sure you follow these steps in order to avoid any speed bumps in opening your dream restaurant or bar.

How to Get a Liquor License in Your State

How much is a liquor license?

The cost of obtaining a liquor license can vary greatly depending on the state. Full liquor licenses can range from $12,000 to $400,000, while beer and wine liquor licenses can cost as low as $3,000. The best way to estimate the cost of a liquor license is by chatting with bars and restaurants in your local area that are similar in size and scope to yours.

What is a liquor license?

A liquor license is a permit from the government that allows someone to sell alcoholic beverages. It might seem relatively straight forward, but believe it or not, there are a few different kinds of liquor licenses.

The first thing you’ll need to do is understand what type of liquor license you’ll need and what the exact laws are regarding liquor licenses based on your specific location, as alcohol laws will vary from state to state. Some states will limit the number of locations that can sell alcohol at any given time, which can make it difficult for new bars and restaurants to get a license immediately.

Additionally, each state has its own Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board – the agency is in charge of regulating the sale of alcohol. This is who you’ll contact to understand your state’s laws, find out how much a liquor license will cost, and determine the process of how to get a liquor license in your state.

bartender pouring a drink

Below are a few examples of how getting a liquor license can vary from state-to-state.

  • New York: The New York State Liquor Authority handles liquor licensing in New York state and is governed by Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) laws. There are 11 articles on the books that deal with how to get a  liquor license in NY, which you can access here.
  • California: In California, bars and restaurants have to follow California ABC laws, rules, and regulations. You can learn more about how to get a liquor license in California here.
  • Washington: In Washington, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board is in charge of liquor licenses. A liquor license in Washington is obtained by getting a liquor endorsement on your business license, which is managed by the Washington State Department of Revenue Business Licensing Service. This means that you’ll be dealing with two separate but related entities throughout the process. This website breaks it down.
  • Texas: The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code determines liquor licensing in the Lone Star State. This website answers all of the common questions that surround how to get a liquor license in Texas.
  • Minnesota: The Minnesota Department of Public Safety manages liquor licenses, which can vary based on the type of establishment. Liquor licenses are governed under Minnesota Statutes 340A.404 subdivision 5. This website answers common questions about how to get a liquor license in Minnesota.
  • Massachusetts: If you’re wondering how to get a liquor license in Massachusetts, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission is in charge of enforcing the liquor laws. These laws, which you can read about here, govern everything from discrimination in licensing to pricing.

What other licenses are needed to open up your bar or restaurant? Check out our licensing and permits guide.

What type of liquor license do you need?

There are two main types of liquor licenses: on-license and off-license. The type you’ll need depends on how you want to sell liquor.

  • You will need an on-license liquor license if the liquor you sell is intended to be consumed on the premises of your business – for example, a bar or restaurant.
  • You will need an off-license if the liquor you sell is intended to be consumed off the premises – for example, a liquor store or grocery store.

As a bar or restaurant owner, you’ll always be looking to obtain an on-license liquor license; however, in most states, there are additional classes of liquor licenses to also be aware of.

  • Restaurant license: This license has a limit on what percent of a restaurant’s earnings can come from alcohol. There is no limit to what type of alcohol you sell, but you do need to keep the financial limit in mind. This percentage is usually in the region of 40%, so make sure you have that magic number top of mind as you run your business.
  • Beer and wine license: If you don’t intend to serve hard liquor, this is what you’ll need. You are then, of course, limited to selling only beer and wine.
  • Tavern license: If your business is more of a bar than a restaurant (making more profit off of liquor than food) then you will need to obtain a tavern license.

inventory of hard liquor bottles on a bar

How to Apply For A Liquor License

Once you understand the laws around how to get a liquor license, you’re ready to apply. There are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind in order to understand everything from the cost of getting a liquor license to how long it takes to get one.

How old do you have to be to get a liquor license?

While some states will allow a person to serve alcohol at the age of 18 or older, you must be at least 21 years old to obtain a liquor license.

What information is required to get a liquor license?

In addition to personal information, you may also be required to provide proof of the other restaurant licenses and permits you’ve already obtained, as well as a certificate of incorporation, employee identification number (EIN), a partnership agreement, a proposed food menu, your company constitution, and a copy of the certificate of title for the premises. Once again, this varies by state, so be sure to check in with your local government.

How Long Does It Take To Get A Liquor License?

Plenty of restaurateurs and bar owners embark on the journey of getting a liquor license without really considering how long it’s going to take to complete the process. Planning appropriately will prevent you from having to guess at how long it takes to get a liquor license and will make sure that you’re legally able to whip up all the drinks you want at your grand opening.

Liquor License Renewal

A license is usually valid for about 1-3 years, and renewing is normally an easier process than getting one for the first time. As long as you haven’t been reported as selling to minors, or have been a problematic entity in your area, you should be able to get a liquor license renewal around 90 days before it expires, or 120 days after it expires (again, depending on your state). Your liquor license cost will also go down significantly, as the renewal cost can drop as much as $1,000 or more from the original.

restaurant licensing and permits guide cover

When all is said and done, to obtain even just one of the proper licenses and permits can cost as much as 10,000 dollars. Luckily, the only resource you’ll need to open your doors with the right licenses and permits is here.

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Written by   |  
Ryan McSweeney started his restaurant career as a dish-washer at the Sundae School Ice Cream Parlor in Dennisport, Massachusetts. For five years he served Cape Cod vacationers the biggest scoops of their favorite flavors. He spent many more years in the service industry, and brings his knowledge and love for the restaurant-world to Upserve where he provides the best restaurant technology to restaurateurs around the country.
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