How to Get a Liquor License for Your Restaurant, in Every State

Booze continues to be one of the biggest money makers in the restaurant industry. Here’s everything you need to know about obtaining a liquor license for your establishment.
June 10, 2021, 02:00 PM UTC
How to Get a Liquor License for Your Restaurant, in Every State

Anyone opening an eating establishment likely has a liquor license high on their list of priorities. It’s not hard to see why: that money-maker you’re shaking likely has a cocktail in it. Profit margins on alcohol, according to Small Business Chronicle, can range from 60% to 80%, and make a quarter of a restaurant’s total sales. So powerful are the strong spirits that they basically saved many restaurants during the pandemic, and states across the country are legalizing to-go cocktails indefinitely as a result. Yet another incentive to, yep, get that liquor license.

Still, getting a liquor license is no easy feat. Between the slew of regulations, permits required, and miscellaneous fees, it can be an overwhelming — not to mention, lengthy — process.

And since restaurant operators can use all the help they can get right now, we are pulling together everything they need to know about obtaining a liquor license in one comprehensive how-to guide.

Let’s get you ready to pop some bottles. This guide will tell you

  • Why you need a license to sell liquor
  • The difference between on-licenses and off-licenses
  • What type your restaurant needs
  • How to apply for a liquor license
  • How much a liquor license costs, in each state

What’s the point of a liquor license?

Governments require you to have a license to legally sell alcohol of any kind in your establishment, for a number of reasons. It allows them to control the amount of alcohol sold in a community, for one, and to know where it’s sold. It holds your restaurant to a set of standards for serving and handling alcohol. And ultimately it offers your establishment some protection: No insurer is going to cover an alcohol-related mishap at an unlicensed bar.

The requirements for a liquor license differ by state, and even by county. Your local regulations and fees will prescribe regulations and fees, the types of alcohol you’re allowed to serve, in what containers, at what times of day, and even whether or not an uncorked wine bottle can be carted out of the restaurant. In other words, if it has to do with booze, it’s accounted for in your license somehow.

RELATED: How to Start A New Restaurant: An Easy Checklist 

What’s the difference between on-licenses and off-licenses?

The many classes of liquor licenses (more on that later) mostly fall into one of these two buckets.

An on-license is probably the one you’re looking for. These cover bars, restaurants, and other businesses that sell and serve alcohol that will be consumed on-premise — golf courses, wedding venues, boozy artisanal ice cream trucks.

The off-license is for places where you carry the alcohol off-premises — liquor stores, bodegas, supermarkets. You get the picture.

What kind of liquor license does your restaurant need?

Every state is going to have broader or narrower definitions for its licenses, and will put different restrictions and limits on each. So, again, depending on where you live, your mileage will certainly vary. But broadly speaking, look for licenses in these categories. 

  • Beer and wine license: Pretty much exactly what it sounds like, this license lets you sell beer and wine but doesn’t cover spirits. These are often quite a bit cheaper and easier to get.
  • Tavern liquor license: This license is for places that serve food, but earn more than half their revenue from selling alcohol.
  • Restaurant or all liquor license: The most common variety and most sought-after license, this one covers it all: beer, wine, and all other spirits.
  • Brewpub liquor license: For breweries, wineries, or any establishment that makes their own varieties of either.
  • Server license: A few states (Indiana and New Mexico, for two) require individual servers to have their own permits even to handle alcohol. And if you can’t serve it, you can’t sell it.

RELATED: Restaurant POS Systems: Things Every New Restaurateur Should Know

How to apply for a liquor license

You’ve narrowed down your liquor license choice. Hooray! Next steps are to apply for it, which can be both a lengthy and convoluted process. (Pro tip: it can take up to a year to actually obtain the license, so get on this process early!)

Let’s walk through the steps.

  1. Learn your state’s liquor laws: Going back to what we mentioned before, each state (and even cities and counties) can have different regulations and requirements when it comes to obtaining liquor licenses. So your first move is to research exactly what your state requires. Become friends with someone at your state’s alcohol beverage control board (the ABC, in the parlance).
  2. Apply with your local alcohol control agency: Once you’re absolutely sure you’re applying for the right license, head to your state’s alcohol or liquor licensing web portal. (Specific links coming at you in this article!) Your license first needs to be approved by the town council. Then it goes to the state for final approval. (And, yes, likely more fees so be prepared.) States and town councils will look into an owner’s past. If your owners have a criminal record, you might be facing an extra hearing or a rejection.
  3. Have all other permits ready to go: More often than not a liquor license isn't issued until the establishment is, well, established. But just in case, make sure all your business permits (building and zoning, health, tax, the works) are locked and loaded, as those will likely be required before you’re able to obtain the liquor license. All of these licenses and permits take time. Start soon.  
  4. Renew, renew, renew: Liquor licenses are not one-and-done. Expect to renew them every one to three years. Miss the date and you could be fined or see your license revoked altogether.

RELATED: How Much Does It Actually Cost To Start a Restaurant?

How much does a liquor license cost in every state?

It’ll vary by state, by the type of license, and by the type of outfit you’re running. But this list of price ranges — along with the respective state licensing authority — will give you a sense of what you can expect.

Alabama

Where to apply: ABC Board 

How much it costs: $100 to $1,000 annually

Alaska

Where to apply: Alaska’s Alcohol & Marijuana Office 

How much it costs: New application fees start at $48 and go to $500. Licenses themselves run between $500 and $2,500 annually

Arizona

Where to apply: Arizona Department of Liquor 

How much it costs: $1,575 to $1,650 annually

Arkansas

Where to apply: Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration 

How much it costs: $100 to $3,000 annually

California

Where to apply: California’s ABC district office 

How much it costs: $1,000 to nearly $16,000 annually

Colorado

Where to apply: Colorado Department of Revenue (the state first requires license approval from the local government)

How much it costs: $22.50 (local fees) and $225 (state fees) to $1,000+ annually

Connecticut

Where to apply: Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection

How much it costs: $30 to nearly $3,000 annually

Delaware

Where to apply: The Office of the Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner (OABCC)

How much it costs: $150 to $2,000 annually

Florida

Where to apply: Department of Business & Professional Regulation

How much it costs: Florida licensing fees are based on county population, and range roughly between $280 to $1,800+ annually

Georgia

Where to apply: Department of Revenue

How much it costs: Applying costs $100, licenses range from $150 to $1,000 annually

Hawaii

Where to apply: Hawaii’s counties have different processes. Head to County of Hawai‘i - Department of Liquor Control, Honolulu Liquor Commission, County of Kauai Department of Liquor Control and County of Maui Liquor Control 

How much it costs: $150 to $1,200

Idaho

Where to apply: Idaho’s Alcohol Beverage Control

How much it costs: $50 to $500+

Illinois

Where to apply: Illinois Liquor Control Commission 

How much it costs: $25 to $5,000+ annually

Indiana

Where to apply: The Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission (ATC)

How much it costs: $300 to $1,000 annually

Iowa

Where to apply: Iowa’s Alcoholic Beverages Division

How much it costs: There are several “Class” levels that distinguish fees, but a Class C license which covers bars, taverns, and restaurants ranges from $936 to $2,000+ annually

Kansas

Where to apply: Kansas Department of Revenue 

How much it costs: $25 to $10,000 annually

Kentucky

Where to apply: Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control 

How much it costs: $30 to $7,000 annually

Louisiana

Where to apply: Louisiana Office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control and City of New Orleans (for NOLA)

How much it costs: $120 to about $400 annually

Maine

Where to apply: The Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations

How much it costs: $220 to $2,200 annually

Maryland

Where to apply: Comptroller of Maryland 

How much it costs: a $600 fee and up to $2,500 annually

Massachusetts

Where to apply: Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission

How much it costs: $1,900 to $3,500

Michigan

Where to apply: Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs 

How much it costs: $600 annual fee and $350 per bar annually

Minnesota

Where to apply: Alcohol & Gambling Enforcement 

How much it costs: $100 to $2,000+

Mississippi

Where to apply: Department of Revenue 

How much it costs: $45 to more than $9,000

Missouri

Where to apply: Department of Public Safety’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control 

How much it costs: $50 to $300+

Montana

Where to apply: Department of Revenue 

How much it costs: $400 fee for new licenses and between $400 to $800 annually

Nebraska

Where to apply: Liquor Control Commission 

How much it costs: $300 to $650 annually

Nevada

Where to apply: Nevada Alcoholic Beverage Control 

How much it costs: $75 to $550

New Hampshire

Where to apply: Liquor Commission Division of Enforcement 

How much it costs: About $200 annually

New Jersey

Where to apply: Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control 

How much it costs: $200 to file. But for restaurants, in real terms, the state notoriously clings to Prohibition-era license restrictions that sharply limit the supply of licenses, like taxi medallions, pushing the auction price of a liquor license into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

New Mexico

Where to apply: Alcoholic Beverage Control 

How much it costs: $1,300 with renewal fees based on volume, starting at $300

New York

Where to apply: New York State Liquor Authority 

How much it costs: $960 to $5,850

North Carolina

Where to apply: Alcoholic Beverage Control 

How much it costs: $400 to $1,000

North Dakota

Where to apply: Alcoholic Beverage License 

How much it costs: $500 to $2,020

Ohio

Where to apply: Department of Commerce Liquor Control   

How much it costs: $376 to $2,344

Oklahoma

Where to apply: Alcoholic Beverage License 

How much it costs: $500 to $1,005

Oregon

Where to apply: Liquor Control Commission 

How much it costs: $400 to $500

Pennsylvania

Where to apply: Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board 

How much it costs: $125 to $700

Rhode Island

Where to apply: Department of Business Regulation 

How much it costs: $500 to upwards of $2,000

South Carolina

Where to apply: Department of Revenue 

How much it costs: starts at $325

South Dakota

Where to apply: Department of Revenue

How much it costs: $900 to $1,200 (also calculated at $1 per capita within city limits, depending on municipality class)

Tennessee

Where to apply: Alcoholic Beverage Commission 

How much it costs: $300 to $4,000

Texas

Where to apply: Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission 

How much it costs: $1,000 to $6,000

Utah

Where to apply: Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

How much it costs: $825 to about $3,000

Vermont

Where to apply: Division of Liquor Control 

How much it costs: $230 to $1,000

Virginia

Where to apply: Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority 

How much it costs: $145 to $1,430

Washington

Where to apply: Liquor and Cannabis Board 

How much it costs: $200 to $2,000

West Virginia

Where to apply: Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration 

How much it costs: $200 to $2,000

Wisconsin

Where to apply: Department of Revenue 

How much it costs: $50 to $10,000

Wyoming

Where to apply: Department of Revenue Liquor Division 

How much it costs: $1,500 to $10,500

[Photo by Chino Rocha on Unsplash]