To sell any type of alcohol in California, you must hold the proper liquor license. The tricky part is there are roughly 80 different types of liquor licenses available, each specific to the type of facility, sale and form of alcohol as well as where it is consumed.
Understanding details like each license’s overall purpose, the fees and how to acquire it can help you choose the right license for your premises.
But, you must choose wisely. As the true license will bring you time and fortune, a false license will take it from you.
Unlike this infuriatingly unhelpful knight, Permit Place can guide you through the process and the decisions you’ll have to make (or manage the whole process for you).
We wrote this resource to explain:
We also provide answers to some frequently asked questions near the end.
Getting a California liquor license can be a complicated crusade (sorry, last reference), but our team has done it hundreds of times. We are here to help should you have questions.
– Mike Robinson (not named after the family dog)
Intro to California Liquor Licenses
The Alcoholic Beverage Control Department
Types of California Liquor Licenses
California Liquor License Costs
How to Get a California Liquor License
What California Liquor License Do You Need?
Steps to Get a California Liquor License
Frequently Asked Questions
California liquor license law focuses on three main tiers:
Retail includes two types of licenses:
Because alcohol permitting and California can be complex, we’ve narrowed our focus to Retailers > On Sale, or what we’ll call hospitality liquor licenses. In other words, restaurants, bars, hotels, and other establishments that serve alcohol for consumption on premise.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) is the governmental agency that regulates the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages for the State of California.
In other words, there is no Los Angeles liquor license, San Francisco liquor license, or San Diego liquor license. There is only a California liquor license.
The ABC performs three main functions:
Agents of the ABC perform multifaceted checks and inspections of liquor license applications to determine the moral standing of applicants and the feasibility of selling alcohol at the proposed site.
Once a district office completes the licensing reports, the application passes to a representative in Sacramento for review and finalizing.
Approved liquor licenses are awarded to the business owner, not the location. In other words, if you decide to move your restaurant across the state, your liquor license is still valid. The new location may require its own permit, but we’ll get to that later.
Applicants that are denied a liquor license can appeal the ABC’s decision.
ABC officers, under Section 830.2 of the California Penal Code, are empowered peace officers who investigate venue owners for violations against the Business and Professions Code, with the power to make arrests if necessary. Transgressions could result in severe disciplinary repercussions and having their liquor license suspended or revoked.
The ABCs mission statement is:
“The mission of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is to provide the highest level of service and public safety to the people of the State through licensing, education, and enforcement.”
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is headquartered in Sacramento, but has district offices throughout the state.
Phone: (916) 419-1319
Address: 2400 Del Paso Road, Suite 155, Sacramento CA, 95834.
Office hours are from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
California business owners can search the ABC district offices page for an office close to them.
There are nearly 90 different liquor licenses issued by the Golden State’s ABC. Different licenses regulate specific kinds of facilities such as restaurants or bars, outline what type of alcoholic beverages are legal can be sold, and whether minors can be on site.
All licenses have one thing in common; they do not allow selling or consumption of alcoholic beverages to anyone under the age of 21.
Not knowing what type your business needs will put you in a difficult position, possibly causing undue complications and delays.
A term you’ll see often with liquor licensing is “bona fide eating place.” This term applies to businesses that meet the following criteria:
The most common types of california liquor licenses issued include:
For California liquor licenses, there are three main costs associated with securing one:
There are two main types of California liquor licenses:
A hospitality business serving alcohol for consumption on site comes under the purview of on-sale liquor licenses and must follow certain licensing requirements in California.
This license is the same as for larger beer manufacturers but contains rules for breweries that manufacture less than 60,000 barrels per year. These include micro-breweries that produce about 15,000 barrels a year, and whose clients are mainly local or regional. Brewpubs come under this designation where a restaurant brews beer sold in draft form on the brewer’s property. (No population restrictions.)
This license is for establishments that serve food such as sandwiches or snacks and does not require full-meal service. Only beer is allowed for consumption on or off the property. This license does not include wine or distilled alcoholic spirits. Minors are allowed on the venue’s property. (No population restrictions.)
This liquor license applies to restaurants who sell beer and wine consumed on or off the venue’s property and requires the premises are a bona fide eating place. Distilled alcoholic spirits are not allowed except for liqueurs used for cooking. Restaurants must include proper kitchen facilities and sell meals eaten on the property. Minors are allowed on the premises. (No population restrictions.)
Bars and taverns may sell beer and wine patrons consume on or off the venue’s property but no distilled alcoholic spirits are allowed. These venues are not required to serve food and minors are not allowed on-site. (No population restrictions.)
Restaurants may sell beer, wine, and distilled alcoholic beverages for patrons to consume on or off the venue’s property and the establishment must operate as a bona fide eating place. The venue has to include a proper kitchen and make and serve substantial meals consumed on-site regularly. Minors are allowed on-site.
This is a license that allows the sale of beer, wine, and distilled alcoholic spirits in a bar, night club, or similar venue for consumption on or off the property. Foodservice is not required. Minors are not allowed. (No population restrictions.)
Bars and taverns may serve beer only for patrons consuming on or off the venue’s property. Wine or distilled alcoholic spirits are not allowed on-premises. Minors are not allowed and warning signs must be clearly displayed. The venue does not have to serve food. (No population restrictions.)
No population restrictions.
Hotels and motels that provide packaged distilled alcoholic spirits in guestrooms must limit the amount to 50 milliliters or less, and the alcohol must be in a locked cabinet.
This license authorizes beer, wine, and distilled alcoholic spirits for consumption on hotel property including guests and their visitors. Hotels and motels providing suites and a complimentary happy hour obtain this license. Minors are allowed on site.
This restaurant liquor license authorizes the sale of beer, wine, and distilled alcoholic spirits for patron’s consumption on a bona fide venue’s property and the establishment may brew a limited amount of draft beer. Alcoholic beverages must be consumed on-site and minors are not allowed.
Costs are subject to change and are often not representative of the full expense associated with obtaining a liquor license.
While the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has there fees, there are some other fees you need to be aware of when requesting a liquor license.
Conditional Use Permit: To get a California liquor license you may also need to obtain a conditional use permit or zoning permit for your facility. See below for more details on this, but for now it’s worth mentioning, it can take months to receive the proper entitlements and the costs vary depending on the location, jurisdiction, and whether the location meets the requirements from the ABC.
Open Market Variability: Liquor licenses that include spirits or hard alcohol typically have to be purchased from the open market and transferred to you. They are a limited number of existing licenses available. Because of this, supply and demand may drive up the value of a liquor license. In these situations, there are also transfer fees that need to be considered.
In order to receive a liquor license in California, businesses must also secure a conditional use permit (CUP).
The ABC requires that you obtain the proper zoning permits through your local municipality. These entitlements are most often called Conditional Use Permits (CUP) and, although the CUP process may occur concurrently with the state process, it is different from a liquor license.
A CUP allows the serving of alcohol on the property itself. Its benefits remain with the location, so future business can use it if ownership changes.
Conversely, a liquor license is issued to the owners of the business allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages at a particular location. Once you have your liquor license you may be able to bring it with you if you choose to relocate your restaurant.
Both local municipalities and the ABC closely monitor the number of restaurants serving alcohol to avoid:
If either case exists, you may need to obtain a finding of “public convenience and necessity” (PCN), which may include an additional public hearing. By state law, if the local municipality does not grant a PCN, then the ABC cannot approve your license application.
Once your CUP is approved, all conditions need to continually be met with city approval and sign off. The ABC and cities impose stringent regulations making sure the permit owner adheres to all rules while the permit is in force.
Determining what liquor license is right for an establishment means combing through the variables of each ABC license type.
For instance, any venue that is a bona fide eating place will likely purchase a Type 41 or Type 47 license.
Type 41 allows only beer and wine sold with food. Type 47 provides authorization to sell beer, wine, and distilled alcoholic spirits with bona fide foodservice and incurs higher fees. It’s also often more difficult to obtain a Type 47 license in a high population area with numerous existing Type 47 license holders.
Permit Place compiled the top five questions to ask as preparation for applying for a California liquor license.
Evaluating your business’s needs and considering the timing, budget, and costs are all integral factors in deciding the Type of licenses needed.
To receive a Liquor License, you’ll need to contact or visit, in person, the ABC district office nearest to their location. All applicants involved and any transferee applicants must all be present. An ABC representative will advise everyone on pertinent laws, rules and regulations, and how the transfer application process works.
Keep in mind that the time it takes to obtain approval for a California liquor license depends on quite a few factors but the business owner can expedite this process with proper preparation or the assistance of a license acquisition expert.
The same application process applies to transferring a license as obtaining a new one. If a transfer entails a new location for the liquor license, a new zoning permit must be filed and approved.
The transfer process of a liquor license takes almost as much time as a new license application and the transferee cannot sell alcohol at the establishment unless a 120-day permit is obtained. This permit requires the existing license to have been current for at least 30 days prior to application.
Please note, this usually only pertains to type 47 licenses where alcohol spirits are required. Rarely are Type 41 licenses transferred to a new owner except for in the sale of a business.
In order to find a private liquor license seller, you have a couple options. You can use the services of a California liquor license broker or find out about a business wanting to sell its license through word-of-mouth.
When transferring a liquor license, you’ll typically incur 50% of the original fees of the particular license type but this is limited to charges no more than $1,250.
For a license with no origination fee, there is a one-time charge of $100. If the transfer includes moving the establishment to another county in California, the fee is much higher at $6,000.
Liquor licenses cannot be transferred to another person for at least two years from the issue date unless special circumstances exist that would cause unnecessary hardship on the establishment’s owner.
The California Business and Professions Code (BPC) exists to govern the transfer of liquor licenses and to investigate possible liens against the existing license. The ABC will not allow a license transfer with an existing lien against it. Any liens you wish to pay off must be done in proper order or liability concerns arise for the license’s escrow.
For a restaurant that serves occasional beer and wine with meals, a wine bar without food service, or a local brewery, a beer and wine license is a less expensive option. Applicants may apply with the ABC or purchase a license from a brokerage or private seller.
An establishment with a liquor license can apply for a Type 77 liquor license when putting on an event directly adjacent to the establishment’s premises. These event licenses are limited to four days each calendar year.
A beer and wine license limits alcohol sales to beer and wine only and a liquor license allows selling and serving of beer, wine, malt beverages, and distilled alcoholic spirits.
Yes, any sale of beer, wine, or alcoholic beverages in California requires a liquor license.
Kombucha is a fermented beverage of steeped tea, sugar, yeast strains, and bacteria. The yeast may trigger fermentation causing the kombucha to develop an alcohol content of 0.5%. Kombucha that includes a liquor content of over 0.5% is considered alcohol and requires a permit with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
Once a California liquor license is in use for more than two years, the license can be transferred to a new venue through an application with the ABC license approval system.
You can apply for a liquor license at the ABC district office near you or hire a firm like Permit Place to assist in obtaining a license. It’s crucial to be sure the brokerage firm is licensed, bonded, and insured.