Whether you're opening a restaurant, a brewery, a pub or a bar, you need to obtain a liquor license if you want to serve alcohol. But what kind of liquor license to apply for will vary based on what you want to sell. Obviously, a bar will need a full liquor license, but when it comes to restaurants, breweries and pubs, owners will need to consider whether to get a beer and wine license vs a liquor license.
Beer and wine liquor licenses do not allow you to serve spirits like general liquor licenses, but they are cheaper and easier to get than full liquor license.
As the names imply, a beer and wine license allows you to sell only beer, wine and malt beverages, whereas a general liquor license will allow you to serve any type of spirits along with beer, wine and malt beverages. While some establishments feel they must have a general liquor license in order to serve cocktails, thanks to the development of new wine-based substitutes for gin, tequila, vodka, rum and whiskey you can now sell cocktails even with a beer and wine license. These cocktails taste like the real, traditional ones people are used to, only they have a lower amount of alcohol by volume (ABV) and can be served at establishments with only beer and wine licenses.
It's important to check your state's rules for beer and wine licenses before deciding on what to serve, as some states have rules on maximum ABV levels in beer and wine, some prohibit mixed drink sales even if the drink is limited to wine ingredients and some have restrictions on other beverages such as cider or mead.
Some states limit the number of licenses available for purchase in an area. For example, in California, there can only be one liquor license issued per 2,000 people living in a county. That means the majority of people seeking new licenses end up not actually getting new licenses but licenses transferred from businesses that choose to give up their license for one reason or another. While there are no more beer and wine licenses available than liquor licenses, there is less competition for these, making it easier to obtain a beer and wine license.
In fact, many restaurants and breweries that want to sell liquor will quickly purchase a beer and wine license for sale so they can start selling at least some alcohol while they attempt to get a less restrictive general liquor license. Some of these establishments later decide they don't want to bother spending the money on a full liquor license because they are content with the amount of sales they make through beer, wine and wine-based cocktail purchases.
Liquor and wine and beer licenses cost different amounts in different states, but a wine and beer license price will almost always be lower than a general liquor license. That being said, the price for any kind of license will vary drastically by state, ranging from anywhere from $100 in Idaho to $13,800 in California in 2018. There is generally also a processing fee of a few hundred dollars as well. States without quotas on the number of licenses they issue tend to have less expensive licenses than those that do have quotas.
If you live in a state with license quotas, getting a new license can be difficult and may leave you waiting years for a space to open up, so you may need to obtain a license by purchasing one from someone who already has one and is willing to transfer it to a new owner. This can cost quite a lot. In fact, in 2013, someone spent $975,000 on a transferred liquor license in New Mexico.
You should check your own state's license fees and availability before deciding on whether to get a beer or wine license or a liquor license.