Liquor Laws and Licensing for Your Bar or Restaurant

Posted on January 5, 2014
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Thinking about starting up a bar or possibly adding one to your existing business model? If so, it’s important to consider what you’ll need to do before customers can belly up for happy hour. First,  you’ll need to get familiar with your local liquor laws. Next, you’ll need to get a liquor license before you can sell a single drink. Let’s take a look at how to get started.

Liquor Laws

Each state has an Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) agency dedicated to liquor laws. The ABC  controls everything from wholesale distribution to retail sale of alcoholic beverages.

These agencies determine:

  • The types of liquor that can be sold
  • What hours your business can be open to sell liquor
  • Any other regional limitations, on when or where liquor can be sold
  • Qualification for obtaining a liquor licence
  • Liquor license fees and quotas

Liquor laws often vary between cities, counties and states. It’s important to inform yourself on exactly what your state and city require, and how to comply with all requisite laws.

Liquor Licenses and Permits

Your bar cannot legally operate without a liquor license. Serving alcohol comes with many responsibilities and inherent risks. Because of this, there are special requirements a business owner must meet before receiving the right to serve and sell alcohol. And receiving a liquor license is no piece of cake, so you’ll need to get started early. The smartest option is to make the liquor license part of your business plan and to do the research well in advance. This way you will be able to anticipate the length of time it will take to get the license and any initial or yearly costs associated with it.

Types of Liquor Licenses

There are different types, or classes, of alcohol licenses and permits. Each state lays out its own individual types of licenses and permits. These are often categorized by the type of alcohol that is being served. Licenses and permits are also typically dependent on the type of establishment. For example, in the state of Colorado there are 19 types of licenses and permits to sell alcoholic beverages. A few of these include:

  • Arts License: for the sale of alcohol by non-profit corporations and municipalities to patrons of cultural and artistic performances
  • Art Gallery Permits: for alcohol service at an art gallery – no more than 15 days per year
  • 3.2% Beer License: Permission to sell fermented malt beverages (3.2% beer) to the public for consumption
  • Beer and Wine License: Permission to sell beer and win only for public consumption
  • Bed and Breakfast Permit: Permission to provide complimentary alcoholic beverages for overnight guests during limited hours
  • Brew Pub License: Permission to manufacture and sell beer, wine and liquor to the public for consumption
  • Club License: Permission for non-profits to sell beer, wine or liquor to members and their guests for on-site consumption
  • Delivery Permit: Permission to deliver sealed containers of alcohol
  • Hotel and Restaurant: Permission for restaurant and hotels with restaurants to sell beer, wine and liquor to the public for consumption

In some states it is easier for a bar to obtain a beer and wine license than a license for spirits. And in other cases, you can get an existing liquor license transferred to your ownership when you purchase an existing restaurant or bar, but this all depends on the local authority. There is no one-size-fits-all method of getting a liquor license. That’s why it is often recommended to hire a lawyer to help sort through the logistics and filings.

Qualifications to Obtain a License

The basic qualifications to receive a liquor license will vary between cities and states. However, a good chunk  have the same general requirements:

  • Legal drinking age. In order to reserve the right to sell alcohol, you need to be of legal age to consume it.
  • Residence. You may be required to live in the same locale as your business for at least 90 days before applying.
  • Clean personal history. A tarnished criminal record could impede your ability to obtain a liquor license.
  • Seller’s permit. The state Department of Revenue will need to give you a seller’s permit before you begin selling anything.
  • Training course completion. Completion of a responsible beverage server’s training course may be required before a license can be issued. Look here for information about TIPS (Training for Intervention Procedures), a global leader in alcohol training programs.

Submitting the Application

The process begins when you submit your application to the proper governing body of your city or state. This can take anywhere from a month to a year, depending on the location and any issues that arise. Typically, the application is posted in a local newspaper, on your store front or in another designated public space for a set amount of a time, during which the community can review the application. Anyone from the community can contest the application for just about any reason. If there is an issue, the application is brought before a local licensing authority, or even a town board, depending on the situation. There may be conditions assigned to the application, too, to cover potential noise violations or traffic issues. After examination, the board can decide whether or not to grant the license, or it might be put to a vote.

Important Questions to Ask

When considering opening a business that serves or allows liquor on the premises, it’s wise to start the process of applying for a liquor license right away.  Here are some important things to think about before moving on:

How much will it cost?

The cost of a liquor license varies from location to location. In fact, this an important step to outline in your initial business plan. The fees associated with getting a liquor license usually have to do with the type of establishment and the population of the city. For example, in California, the fee for a typical restaurant in a city with a population over 40,000 can reach $12,000 with an annual renewal rate of over $800.1

When should I start?

The sooner you start the process of applying for a liquor license, the better. The process can take anywhere from a few months to a year. If this is something you are thinking of adding on to your current establishment, err on the side of caution and allow for at least a year to get the final license in hand, assuming everything proceeds accordingly.

Is insurance important?

If you are planning to sell or serve liquor for the first time, insurance is very important. Because alcohol sales is a risky business, liability insurance is a must. Liquor liability insurance will not cover sales that contradict the law, such as sales to a minor, yet it will cover things like assault charges if fights break out, or medical charges if someone gets hurt as a result of drinking in your establishment. You will find that your lawyer—and possibly a professional accountant—will be very useful in this area. >> Learn More About Managing Operational Risks

Where do I apply?

Search online, go to your library or look in the list below for information on your state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control agency. There is usually a good deal of information available online to guide you, especially if you are applying for the first time.

Running a bar is a big undertaking, and abiding by the law is part of it. Be sure that you have all your ducks in a row when it comes to obtaining the appropriate license for your establishment.

List of Departments of Alcoholic Beverage Control by State

State of Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board

Alaska Department of Public Safety, Alcoholic Beverage Control Board

Arizona Department of Liquor License and Control

Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration Alcoholic Beverage Control Division

California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Colorado Department of Revenue Liquor and Tobacco Enforcement Division

State of Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection

State of Delaware Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner

Florida Department of Business Professional Regulation

Georgia Department of Revenue

Honolulu Liquor Commission (City and County)

Hawaii: County of Kauai Liquor Commission

Hawaii: County of Maui Department of Liquor Control

Hawaii: Department of Liquor Control, County of Hawaii

State of Idaho Legislature

State of Illinois Liquor Control Commission

Indiana Alcohol & Tobacco Commission

Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Commission

Kansas Department of Revenue Alcoholic Beverage Control

Kentucky Department of Revenue

State of Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control

Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations

Montgomery County Maryland Department of Liquor Control

Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission

Michigan Liquor Control Commission Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth

Minnesota Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division

Mississippi State Tax Commission Alcoholic Beverage Control

Missouri Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Montana Department of Revenue Liquor License Bureau

Nebraska Liquor Control Commission

Nevada Department of Taxation

New Hampshire State Liquor Commission

The State of New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control

New Mexico Department of Public Safety

New York State Liquor Authority Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control

North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission

North Dakota Office of the State Tax Commissioner, Alcohol Tax Section

Ohio Department of Commerce

Oklahoma ABLE Commission

Oregon Liquor Control Commission

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board

State of Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation

South Carolina Department of Revenue Alcoholic Beverage Licensing

South Dakota Department of Revenue & Regulation

Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission

Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commision

Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

State of Vermont Department of Liquor Control

Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Washington State Department of Licensing

District of Columbia Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration

West Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration

Wisconsin Department of Revenue

Wyoming Department of Revenue



1 California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, 2009 License Fee Schedule  (accessed July 28, 2009)


Maggie Moulatsiotis Maggie Moulatsiotis (68 Posts)

Maggie is the Content Development Manager at, a pescetarian and a newly minted DIY and home cook extraordinaire. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and very cute puppy, Puka.

21 Replies to "Liquor Laws and Licensing for Your Bar or Restaurant"

  • kent
    February 10, 2014 (3:49 pm)

    what is the law regarding having a smoking area outside of a bar? does the area need a fence? solid or just rails. Trinidad co

    • Maggie Moulatsiotis
      February 10, 2014 (5:29 pm)

      Hi there,
      For the full law in Colorado, check out this link. In the state law, it is stated that smoking is permitted in “The outdoor area of any business as long as it is beyond the 15 foot radius around the main entryway.”

  • Lacey sims
    May 7, 2014 (6:18 am)

    I am needing to know if a restaurant in Indiana is allowed to serve non alcoholic beverages in beer mugs?

    • Maggie Moulatsiotis
      May 7, 2014 (5:21 pm)

      For any liquor law questions about your specific area, it’s best to check with your local licensing office. However, the type of glassware a non-alcoholic beverage is served in typically doesn’t matter, as long as it is clean and sanitized for use.

  • kristina
    June 21, 2014 (12:43 pm)

    Do I need to serve some kind of food or appitizers to seel beer and wine in my lounge

    • Maggie Moulatsiotis
      June 23, 2014 (1:47 pm)

      This entirely depends on your area’s local liquor laws and the type of license you have. The best course of action is to review the type of liquor license you have with the local authorities such as the ABC (Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control). For example, in California this state ABC form shows the different types of licenses and the perimeters within them:

  • Paulette
    June 28, 2014 (8:48 am)

    To Whomever This Concerns; I am looking for applications for Pub Licenses,for Bar and Resturant,do you have them?if so,Please send me out a couple,one each, [Editor deleted address information].

    • Maggie Moulatsiotis
      July 1, 2014 (5:28 pm)

      To obtain license application materials, you will need to contact your local state government. Find your state government’s website here and begin your search with any of these words: “beverage”, “liquor”, “liquor laws” or “liquor license”. Each site is a little different in how it’s set up, but those keywords should point you in the right direction. Good luck with your new business!

  • David R Marks Sr
    July 3, 2014 (5:15 pm)

    what is the minimum distance from an open bar a child can be

    • Maggie Moulatsiotis
      July 13, 2014 (4:08 pm)

      This completely depends on your local laws. You will need to check the alcohol licensing mandates in your area.

  • Geraldine Wendholt
    July 10, 2014 (8:24 pm)

    In IN is it possible to obtain more than one type of license? Ex: a package store license and a restaurant by one individual?

    • Maggie Moulatsiotis
      July 13, 2014 (4:12 pm)

      It may be, but to be sure call your state’s officials to find out.
      For Indiana, you can start here: Contact Info

  • Matt
    July 15, 2014 (1:51 pm)

    do you know of any information regarding states which used to have a quota system that now do not? In New Mexico the costs of licenses are obscenely expensive. I’m trying to get legislation passed that would re-write our archaic liquor codes. Just curious if there is a state that has gone through what New Mexico needs to do! Thanks for any info.

    • Maggie Moulatsiotis
      July 17, 2014 (3:18 pm)

      Sorry, we can’t help you there. But perhaps one of our readers knows the answer to your question!

  • Daniel Rubinow
    July 22, 2014 (8:37 am)

    It bears repeating:
    Every state has a different law.
    Every local jurisdiction has a different law.
    Every license applicant is different.

    If you have questions, seek answers from a professional.

    Daniel Rubinow

    Chicago, IL

  • Monica
    August 22, 2014 (3:12 pm)

    Looks like I have to serve food ( light snacks and sandwiches) But I do not have a commercial kitchen. I’m willing to have a outside vendor bring in these item’s, but that are the laws regarding food in a non-food establishment?

    or Here is the statute: 12-47-409. Beer and wine license. (1) A beer and wine license shall be issued to persons selling malt and vinous liquors and fermented malt beverages for consumption on the premises. Beer and wine licensees shall have sandwiches and light snacks available for consumption on the premises during business hours, but need not have meals available for consumption.

    • Maggie Moulatsiotis
      August 22, 2014 (3:47 pm)

      The best answer is to call and speak with your local licensing office to see what options you have available and what additional licensing you may need to comply with this statute.

  • winnie
    September 16, 2014 (11:49 am)

    I know a place that isn’t going through the state to get their liquor. Sure they be turned in?

  • classy
    September 23, 2014 (8:12 pm)

    I am in route to purchasing a building but don’t have months to a year to waist money waiting on paperwork to process. This would mean I would be paying on an location where I’m not able to even open until everything is approved. Just doesn’t seem right to me.

  • Piddler
    January 28, 2015 (9:52 am)

    In Louisiana, Is a restaurant or lounger owner allowed purchase alcoholic beverages from any retailer for resale in their restaurant or lounger or…are they required to purchase all alcohol beverages from a distributor?

    • John Garcia
      January 30, 2015 (12:35 pm)

      Hello, Piddler!

      Your best bet is to contact your local licensing office to see what options are available for purchasing alcoholic beverages and what additional licensing you may need to comply.

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