How to Obtain a Liquor License: A State-by-State Guide
March 22nd, 2023
It's no secret that serving up cocktails is a great way to boost your business' profit margins and add an additional revenue stream. However —whether you want to serve beer, wine, or liquor — you must have the proper licensing that meets city and state regulations.
Not having a valid liquor license and selling alcohol can open up a business to hefty fines and penalties or worse — forced closure.
So, what is a liquor license, and how do you get one?
To help make the process easier to navigate, we've created this state-by-state guide on how to get a liquor license for your bar or restaurant.
What is a Liquor License?
Generally speaking, a liquor license is a state-issued permit that allows businesses to serve or sell beer, wine, and spirits. Any business involved with the manufacturing, distributing, or sale of alcohol requires having a valid liquor license.
Here’s what else a liquor license determines:
- How much alcohol can you serve at a time?
- What types of alcohol can you serve?
- How much can an establishment charge for alcoholic beverages?
Each state has different laws or regulations set forth by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) or similar governing body, so it’s essential to understand the parameters outlined for any given location before serving customers.
Which Liquor License do I Need?
Liquor license types vary depending on what kind of alcohol you want to serve. In addition, based on the type of establishment you have, you might need to obtain different kinds of liquor licenses.
There are two types to consider:
- Off-license — required for businesses selling alcohol that’s consumed off-site, such as a liquor store
- On-license — required for businesses planning to sell alcohol that will be consumed on-site, such as restaurants and bars
Additionally, there are classes of liquor licenses. Some of the most commonly obtained are:
- Beer and Wine — Establishments interested in serving only beer or wine (usually to pair with food) but not hard liquor will likely opt for this liquor license.
- Restaurants — This liquor license allows restaurants to sell a variety of alcohol types. One caveat is that a state may limit how much of the earnings percentage comes from alcohol sales.
- Taverns, Bars, or Nightclubs — This type of liquor license is needed where selling alcohol is the primary business.
Applying for a Liquor License
Once ready, you’ll need to get an application form from the local ABC agency.
The agency will let you know what additional documents are required to apply. Some examples include a potential menu, certificate of incorporation, business license, and zoning or building permits.
Processing an application for a liquor license can typically take 30 days or more, depending on the location and backlog of apps. In some agencies, the application process can take six months to a full year! Therefore, you’ll want to get your application in as soon as possible to avoid delays.
Some obstacles businesses face during the application process are issues that should have been sorted out before submitting paperwork.
Building and zoning permits also dictate where alcohol can be sold. Too close to a school or place of worship? Some states might reject applications for these reasons alone.
Does the city impose a limit on the number of active liquor licenses? The agency might only accept new applications once a license opening becomes available.
Once you apply for a license, you must display signs on the premises highlighting the intent to sell alcohol for a required number of days. During this period, consumers and local businesses may file an objection about the effect of serving alcohol in the community, which could impact whether or not a liquor license is issued.
How Much Does a Liquor License Cost?
The cost of obtaining a liquor license varies depending on a few factors, such as the location or class of license the business needs. Renewal fees, which come up every one to three years, are also something to consider when applying for a liquor license.
In some states, a lounge serving only beer and wine might find a liquor license costs only a few hundred dollars. Yet, simultaneously, a full-service restaurant in a central metropolitan area might need a license costing upwards of $300,000.
Because these costs can add up quickly, a business must fully understand which license is needed before moving forward with the application process.
Obtaining a Liquor License: A Guide for All 50 States
To help make the time-consuming process a bit easier, we’ve gathered essential information from each state which should help you move forward with an application.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Alabama
Find application information for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control, which has various offices based on the county.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Alaska
In Alaska, establishments need approval from various state and local agencies. Find application information on this document from the Alaska Department of Commerce.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Arizona
Look for the liquor license that best applies to your business needs on the Arizona Department of Liquor website. Arizona offers over 20 different series of licenses and allows you to submit most applications online.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Arkansas
Liquor license applications in Arkansas must be submitted via mail. Visit the Arkansas ABC website for an application that meets the needs of your establishment.
Obtaining a Liquor License in California
California’s ABC agency recommends applying in person at a local office. Liquor licenses in California must be renewed annually.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Colorado
In Colorado, depending on the type of application, you will need to apply at the local and state levels. The Colorado Department of Revenue offers some excellent guidance on the required details.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Connecticut
In Connecticut, you can submit a liquor license application and payment to a drop box at the Department of Consumer Protection Self-Service Center in Hartford.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Delaware
Applications and payments can be made through Delaware’s online licensee system, which is run through the Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Florida
Florida is another state where there are more than two dozen types of liquor licenses that are processed via Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation. You can choose to process your application online or in person at your local office.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Georgia
Georgia is another state where you’ll have to navigate multiple layers of government approval before the state issues an alcoholic beverage license. The Georgia Department of Revenue provides details on what you’ll need to apply.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Hawaii
In Hawaii, liquor licenses are determined by county and managed through the Honolulu Liquor Commission.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Idaho
Due to strict quotas based on population, obtaining a state liquor license in Idaho can be difficult. Contact the Idaho Alcohol Beverage Control Bureau to learn more.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Illinois
Illinois liquor license applications are submitted to the Liquor Control Commission’s website, along with the required documentation and processing fee.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Indiana
Apply online and provide supporting documents via mail to the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Iowa
An online portal makes applying for a liquor license in Iowa simple. Visit the Alcoholic Beverages Division for more information.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Kansas
Submit and track your application through the online portal provided by the Kansas Department of Revenue’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Department.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Kentucky
All necessary forms and application details can be found on the Kentucky Alcoholic Beverage Control website. You can submit the app via mail or fax.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Louisiana
Applications must be submitted to the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, along with the required fees.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Maine
A step-by-step guide to applying for a liquor license in Maine is provided through the state’s Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Maryland
Applications are provided through the Comptroller of Maryland and require additional documentation, such as background checks and business identification information.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Massachusetts
Whether you need to transfer an existing license or apply for a new one, the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission's website provides all the necessary information.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Michigan
Applications are available on the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs website. They may take up to six months to process.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Minnesota
Local government approval and background checks are required before applying for a liquor license in Minnesota. You can submit applications to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Alcohol, and Gambling Enforcement.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Mississippi
Mississippi has an extensive list of wet (alcohol allowed) and dry (alcohol not allowed) counties for various permits, so make sure you account for this in your business plan. The Mississippi Alcoholic Beverage Control can give you the ins and outs so you can plan accordingly.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Missouri
Whether you want to sell beer, wine, spirits, or all of the above, the Missouri Alcohol and Tobacco Control has various license types, and fees vary accordingly.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Montana
From a beer conessisour’s license to traditional retail permits, Montana’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Division's website offers a wealth of information.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Nebraska
Applications can be mailed, emailed, or faxed to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, and fees can be paid online.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Nevada
Not only will your business need to apply for licensing, but servers and bartenders will be required to complete alcohol awareness training in this state. You can find information on both on the Nevada Alcoholic Beverage Control website.
Obtaining a Liquor License in New Hampshire
The New Hampshire Liquor Commission requires you to request an application before filling one out — make sure you allow for additional processing time in this state.
Obtaining a Liquor License in New Jersey
This state is phasing out paper applications and going completely digital (which should improve processing time), so applicants can apply online at the New Jersey ABC board website.
Obtaining a Liquor License in New Mexico
Ironically, the New Mexico Regulations and Licensing Department has a 12-step application process that could take five months or more to complete. In addition, as a quota state, only limited liquor licenses are available.
Obtaining a Liquor License in New York
Select and apply for the necessary licenses by visiting the Liquor Authority Division of New York website, which allows applications to be submitted online.
Obtaining a Liquor License in North Carolina
The North Carolina ABC Commission requires you to make an appointment at your local office and submit your application in person.
Obtaining a Liquor License in North Dakota
In North Dakota, you must submit applications and fees to the Office of the Attorney General. Processing times may take up to six weeks.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Ohio
Ohio is another state with an established quota on how many alcohol permits it will award. You can find the information you need to apply on the Ohio Department of Commerce website.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Oklahoma
Apply for a liquor license using Oklahoma’s Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission's online portal.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Oregon
Access necessary applications and submit them to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Processing time may take up to 45 days.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Pennsylvania
Obtaining a Liquor License in Rhode Island
Create a profile and apply for a liquor license online using Rhode Island’s eLicensing portal.
Obtaining a Liquor License in South Carolina
Licenses are regulated in South Carolina, which has a lengthy application process. Visit the state’s Department of Revenue website to learn more about available liquor licenses.
Obtaining a Liquor License in South Dakota
Applicants must contact the South Dakota Department of Revenue to learn more about the process and costs.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Tennessee
Tennessee has a variety of licenses available. Find one that suits your business needs and apply on the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission website.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Texas
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission makes applying for a liquor license efficient. Visit the portal to learn more about different application types and associated fees.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Utah
Various factors play into liquor licenses in this state and you may find them more restrictive than others. For links to necessary online portals, visit Utah’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services website.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Vermont
The Vermont Department of Liquor and Lottery online portal guides users in selecting the best liquor license for a business. You can visit and submit applications through this resource.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Virginia
Follow the guidelines and checklist provided through Virginia’s ABC website to find applications and related documents for liquor licenses in this state.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Washington
Washington recommends applying at least 90 days in advance of selling alcohol. Access the application and required process through the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board website.
Obtaining a Liquor License in West Virginia
Licensing details and fees are available on the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Commission website, along with detailed information about the application process.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Wisconsin
Applicants must apply for a liquor license locally; a clerk will help you with the process. More details are available on the Wisconsin Department of Revenue website.
Obtaining a Liquor License in Wyoming
Register and submit license applications using the state’s online portal via the Wyoming Department of Revenue Liquor Division website.
The Last Call: Pros and Cons of Serving Adult Beverages
One of the big questions facing food service owners is this: Should I serve alcohol?
Of course, it makes sense if you’re planning to open a bar or nightclub. But does it make sense for a restaurant? As with all things, there are both advantages and disadvantages related to the sale of alcohol:
- An impressive profit margin comes with selling alcohol – margins upwards of 75 to 80% depending on the alcohol type (liquor, wine, or bottled beer).
- Alcohol sales are often the strongest, which might appeal to new restaurants or bars wanting to start out strong.
- Selling alcohol is a competitive advantage and has the potential to draw in customers who want to relax with a cocktail or order an alcoholic beverage with their meal.
However, there are some disadvantages to consider as well.
Applying for a liquor license requires additional steps from bar or restaurant owners. Depending on the state, this process could be lengthy, cumbersome, and expensive – especially if you plan to serve various types of alcoholic beverages.
The sale of alcohol also comes with overhead costs, such as additional staff with a specific skill set, bar supplies, and equipment.
After considering both sides of the coin, the potential profits and benefits are sometimes worth the extra steps. Individual businesses will need to weigh the pros and cons to make that determination.
Disclaimer: This content is provided solely for informational purposes and is not intended to serve as accounting, tax, legal, or other professional advice. You are solely responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. You should contact your accountant, attorney, or other relevant advisors for advice specific to your circumstances.