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How to Get a Liquor License (Plus Other Restaurant Licenses You Need)

How to Get a Liquor License (Plus Other Restaurant Licenses You Need)

Whether you’re opening a bar or restaurant, it’s important to have a firm understanding of your city’s legal landscape and regulatory requirements—particularly when it comes to the various restaurant licenses and liquor licenses you need to operate legally.

Being compliant with your local laws and regulations allows you to operate your business and focus on growth, but failure to do so can result in penalties, fines or even being forced to close your doors. 

But today, we’re going to cover how to get a liquor license. Restaurants that sell alcohol claim that alcohol sales account for around 30% of their revenue. In an industry with notoriously slim profit margins (between 2% and 6%, according to Restaurant Resource Group), those sales can make a big difference. 

In this post, you’ll learn: 

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What is a liquor license?

In it’s simplest form, a liquor license is a restaurant permit that allows you to serve alcohol in your restaurant. Whether you are in the United States or Canada, the regulations will vary but the point of the license is the same.

There are two types of liquor licenses: off-license and on-license

What’s the difference between off-license or on-license?

Conversely, an off-license liquor license is what you need if the alcohol you sell is to be consumed off the premises. If you’re operating a liquor store or grocery store, you want an off-license liquor license. 

You need an on-license liquor license if the alcohol you sell is to be consumed on the premises of your business. If you’re operating a restaurant or bar, you want an on-license liquor license. 

For a bar or restaurant, customers consume their drinks inside the establishment or on its patio. As a result, an on-premise liquor license is what restaurants and bars need to operate legally. 


What liquor licenses does a restaurant need?

In most provinces and states, there are three distinct types of liquor licenses. 

1. Restaurant license

This type of liquor license has a set limit on what percent of a restaurant’s earnings can come from alcohol. This is typically in the range of 40%. This means you’ll have to pay close attention to your sales reports

2. Beer and wine license

If you’re operating a brewery or a wine bar and don’t intend to sell anything other than beer or wine (by that, we mean hard liquor and spirits), this is the license for you.

3. Tavern license

If your business is less about the food and more about the booze, then you need this license. 

Think about your projected sales: will you make more profit off of liquor sales than food sales? If you answered yes, then the tavern license is what you need. 

Note: Keep in mind some states and provinces may have many other types of licenses in addition to the ones listed above. 


How much does a liquor license cost? 

The cost of obtaining a liquor license can vary greatly depending on your location. 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 area that are similar in size and scope to yours.


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.


How do you renew a liquor license?

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.


How to get a liquor license 

In the United States, each state plus two territories have their own regulations for liquor licenses—that’s 52 different sets of rules. For Canada, 13 different bodies are responsible for regulating the sales and distribution of alcohol. 

In addition to personal background information, you may be required to provide the following as part of your application for a liquor license: 

  • Employee Identification Number (EIN)
  • Certificate of incorporation
  • Company constitution
  • Proposed menu
  • Partnership agreement
  • Restaurant mockups 

Have these documents ready before starting the application process. 

Applying for a liquor license in the United States 

In the United States, liquor licenses are determined on the state level. For instructions on how to apply in your state, we suggest visiting the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s site and clicking on your state’s link. 

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. 
  • 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.

Note: Pay special attention to renewal rates and timelines. A liquor license is usually valid for between one and three years. The good news is that renewing your license is generally an easier process than obtaining one for the first time.

Applying for a liquor license in Canada

To obtain any type of liquor license in Canada, you need to apply through the Alcohol and Gaming Commission (AGCO) for the province in which your business is located. 

The AGCO reviews applications based on the risk the licensee might pose to public safety. This means they will likely do background checks, financial audits, and consult local businesses and neighbors around you to get a sense of your reputation. 

They also will visit your establishment multiple times during the process. You’ll also need to contact your community’s fire, building and health departments to arrange for their inspections as part of the liquor license process. 


Other restaurant licenses and permits you might need

A liquor license isn’t the only restaurant license or permit you need to open a restaurant. In fact, just to successfully apply for a liquor license, you’ll probably need several of the below, must-have licenses and permits:  

  1. Business license
  2. Foodservice license 
  3. Employer Identification Number (EIN)
  4. Live entertainment/music license
  5. Food handler’s permit
  6. Sign permit
  7. Dumpster place permit
  8. Certificate of occupancy
  9. Sales tax permit
  10. Building health permit
  11. Employee health permit
  12. Seller’s permit
  13. Valet parking permit 


Obtain the license your restaurant or bar needs 

While the licenses we mentioned above are certainly important, they may not cover everything for where your business is located. Each state and province has its own laws, regulations and requirements. 

For businesses in the U.S., we recommend visiting the U.S. Small Business Administration’s site for more information. 

For Canadian businesses, we recommend visiting the Government of Canada’s page on permits and licenses.  

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