How to Buy a Liquor License (Step-by-Step Guide)

  • By Matthew Davis
  • Jan 18, 2024
  • Establishing Your Business

Getting a liquor license as a business owner can feel like a road trip without a map. It’s easy to get lost.

But don’t despair! Whether you’re an aspiring liquor store owner or bar operator, we’ve created a map. This guide will walk you through the legalese and equip you with the knowledge you need to land a coveted liquor license (no matter your location).

First, a dose of reality:

Getting a liquor license isn’t easy.

The process is complex, time-consuming and costly. Local regulations and permit types vary widely, demanding careful research and meticulous planning.

But of course, it’s worth it.

A liquor license unlocks the potential for increased revenue for liquor stores and bars, and for most, it’s a necessity for sustainable growth.

Need some help? Keep reading to explore liquor permit types, how to apply, average costs, and more. Take the first steps to getting a liquor license right now!

What Is a Liquor License

Let’s start with some liquor license basics.

A liquor license is a government-issued permit granting your business the legal right to sell, serve, or distribute alcoholic beverages.

In every state, you need a liquor license to operate an alcohol related business. For example, in liquor stores, you’ll often need a retail liquor permit. And if you operate a distillery, you’d likely need a manufacturer’s liquor license.

Ultimately, the types of liquor licenses vary by state. For example, Florida offers 41 different types of retail beverage licenses.

Do you need a liquor license?

If you own a business that sells alcohol, you need a liquor license to operate legally.

Unless you’re running a juice bar, alcohol sales require this official green light. Think of it as your license to operate – without it, you’re essentially running a speakeasy.

What Liquor Licenses Is Right for Your Business?

Securing a liquor license is an important first step in opening a liquor store, restaurant or bar. However, there are numerous types of liquor licenses.

They typically vary based on what you’re selling. Think beer and wine at a bistro versus liquor at a nightclub. Plus, they regulate where you can sell, e.g. within a liquor store, restaurant, nightclub or wholesale business.

Here’s a closer look at the common types of liquor licenses:

On-Premises vs. Off-Premises

Will your business allow on-site drinking? Or are you strictly a take-away business.

Most liquor license types fall into these two categories: on-premises vs off-premises

On-Premises Licenses

These licenses allow you to serve alcohol for consumption within your establishment. This would be a bar, restaurant, pub, or even a liquor store that allows shoppers to sit and sip.

Common examples include:

  • Full Liquor License: The “holy grail” for bars and nightclubs, permitting the sale of beer, wine, and spirits. Full liquor licenses are generally the costliest.
  • Restaurant License: This license type is perfect for establishments where food takes center stage. Generally, a large percentage of the business’s sales must be food to qualify for a restaurant license.
  • Tavern License: Limited to beer and wine sales, the tavern license is ideal for pubs and casual dining spots with a focus on brews and bites.

Off-Premises Licenses

These licenses authorize the sale of sealed alcohol for consumption off-site. Imagine convenience stores, supermarkets, and liquor stores filling coolers and shelves with libations.

Popular types include:

  • Retail License: The go-to for liquor stores selling a wide variety of packaged alcoholic beverages.
  • Beer and Wine License: This license caters to establishments specializing in beer and wine. Think gourmet cheese / bottle shops.
  • Delivery License: This license allows you to deliver the party directly to doorsteps.

Specialized Permit Types

The above categories cover the most common types of businesses. However, there are a variety of special licenses for businesses like:

  • Social clubs
  • Special occasion licenses (for temporary events like festivals)
  • Manufacturer’s licenses (breweries, wineries and distilleries)

How to Apply for a Liquor License

The process of applying for a liquor license can seem daunting. But it’s very straightforward. (Just gather documents, fill out the paperwork and apply).

The only requirement is patience. Obtaining a liquor license can take from 3 months up to a year or more.

Here’s a step-by-step guide

Step 1: Choose a License Type

Research different types of licenses. Choose the type that fits your business needs and goals. License types vary locally, so be sure to check with your local or state licensing authority.

Step 2: Gather Documentation

The application itself is generally very tedious. Consult with a liquor license attorney to fill out your application correctly. Missing information can slow down the process.

Here are some files that your application is likely to include:

  • A completed application
  • Business plan / financial projections
  • Proof of ownership / lease agreement
  • Zoning clearance
  • Proof of insurance
  • Background check

Step 3: Submit Your Application

You can submit your application online (or in-person). Generally, any licensing application fees will be due when you submit. In most states, the application fee is about $200 to $500.

Step 4: Public Hearing

Depending on your location and license type, a public hearing may be required. Prepare to present your business plan, address any concerns, and demonstrate your commitment to responsible alcohol service to community members.

This may be required to adhere to zoning regulations or as part of state or local liquor licensing laws. This is an important step; make sure you’re prepared to face the public.

Step 5: License Issuance

After you submit your application, it will be reviewed. The review process can take quite some time, up to 3 months or more. Therefore, when you start your liquor store or bar, you should apply for a permit as soon as possible.

Ultimately, navigating the liquor license process can be complex. Consider seeking assistance from an experienced consultant or attorney.

How Much Does a Liquor License Cost?

A liquor license can be very expensive, with costs ranging from $200 up to $1 million (in New Jersey where liquor licenses are scarce).

Fortunately, most states include a variety of options, with average costs at about $1000 per license. Here’s a look at the costs of a liquor license in several U.S. states:

New York

In New York, getting a liquor license starts with the State Liquor Authority (SLA). You’ll apply to the SLA. But be prepared to shell out some cash too, with fees ranging from under $1,000 to over $10,000 depending on your desired permit.

The process takes a long time too. The approval process can stretch from 22 to 26 weeks (although retail businesses can apply for temporary operating permits).

Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) manages liquor licensing. The costs can range from about $500 to $10000 (for wholesale distribution licenses). The process typically takes about 30 to 120 days.

Washington

Washington’s liquor license process is managed by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB). Fees range from $400 to $2,000, and the process averages about 70 days. Quirks include “Class 12 Mixologist” permits for servers and managers, and tricky rules near schools. It’s recommended you hire an attorney to help.

California

California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) issues licenses. And the costs are high, ranging from $900 to $16,500. The review process takes about 90 days for new licenses and 75 days for transfers.

Florida

Florida’s liquor licenses come from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The costs and fees associated with the licenses can vary significantly. Fees for beer and wine licenses typically range about $4,000. However, the state also has a quota system for full liquor permits; these can cost up to $150,000 or more (due to the limited amount).

Texas

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) offers liquor licenses. Beer and wine permits in Texas start at $1,100, ranging up to $17,000 for a full liquor license. The process takes 3-6 months, on average. In Texas, there’s a quota per county, and therefore, costs can vary significantly by location.

New Jersey

New Jersey’s liquor license hunt starts with the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). Be prepared for sticker shock. The number of available liquor licenses in New Jersey is based on population. As such, new liquor licenses and transfers can cost between $350,000 to $1 million.

Tips to Avoid Losing Your Liquor License

Generally, once you obtain a liquor license, your business should protect it.

That means avoiding problems that can result in a lost liquor license. Some examples include selling to minors, not selling within proper hours (e.g. bar staying open past Last Call) or continued disorderly conduct from patrons.

Here are a few ways you can avoid these issues:

  • Compliance

    • Card everyone, every time: No ID, no booze. Age verification mistakes are a fast track to trouble.
    • Train your staff: Make sure your team knows liquor laws, responsible service practices, and ID verification procedures inside and out.
    • Keep meticulous records: Maintain accurate logs of ID checks, employee training, and alcohol sales.
    • Post regulations visibly: Remind patrons and staff of key rules with clear signage.

    Bottom line, age verification software is one piece of technology shaping the alcohol industry.

  • Safety

    • Card everyone, every time: No ID, no booze. Age verification mistakes are a fast track to trouble.
    • Train your staff: Make sure your team knows liquor laws, responsible service practices, and ID verification procedures inside and out.
    • Keep meticulous records: Maintain accurate logs of ID checks, employee training, and alcohol sales.
    • Post regulations visibly: Remind patrons and staff of key rules with clear signage.
  • Ongoing Maintenance

    • Monitor local laws and regulations: Things change, so stay updated on any new rules or policies that might impact your license.
    • Conduct regular internal audits: Check your practices against regulations and address any potential gaps before they become problems.
    • Invest in staff training: Regularly refresh your team’s knowledge on all aspects of responsible alcohol service.

Wrapping Up

Navigating the liquor license labyrinth might seem daunting, but remember, business success is on the other side.

The biggest piece of advice: Work with a consultant.

Many attorneys and consultants specialize in beverage license applications. And they offer localized knowledge and experience. A consultant can increase your chances of a successful application.

Need help starting your liquor store business?

Choose FTx POS for our liquor store POS systems and bar POS systems. Our systems include a range of tools to help liquor stores and bars grow, including loyalty, ecommerce, and more.

FAQs

The timeline for obtaining a liquor license can vary greatly depending on the state and type of license you're applying for. In general, expect anywhere from 3 months to 1 year, with factors like background checks, public hearings, and local regulations influencing the timeline.

Some states allow restaurants or specific establishments to serve beer without a full liquor license. However, regulations differ, so researching your local laws is crucial. In many cases, even beer sales require a specific permit or license.

Absolutely. Selling alcohol without a license is a serious offense in all states, with potential fines, jail time, and even license revocation for existing businesses.

Regulations vary, but generally anyone directly serving, handling, or managing alcoholic beverages may need a pouring permit, even if the establishment has a license.

Yes, license holders have ongoing responsibilities to ensure responsible alcohol service and compliance with regulations. These include staff training, ID verification, recordkeeping, noise control, and crowd management. Maintaining a compliant and responsible establishment is crucial for keeping your license.

The minimum age for obtaining a liquor license in most states is 21, though some states require owners to be 25 or older. It's essential to check your local regulations for specific requirements.

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Business Experts & Contributors

A New Solution Coming To FasTrax

Danielle is a content writer at FTx POS. She specializes in writing about all-in-one, cutting-edge POS and business solutions that can help companies stand out. In addition to her passions for reading and writing, she also enjoys crafts and watching documentaries.

Danielle Dixon

Content Writer
A New Solution Coming To FasTrax

Matthew Davis is a content marketing specialist for FTx POS. With experience in marketing, brick-and-mortar retail, and ecommerce, Matthew enjoys writing about strategies and technology retailers can use to grow. Previously, he managed retail operations for a sports/entertainment facility and worked in marketing consulting.

Matthew Davis

SEO Specialist/Content Writer

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