Your Go-To Guide to Getting a Liquor License in California

Published: Jun 10, 2015
Cigars - Liquors - Beer - Wine
Are you looking into the possibility of starting your own liquor store, or bar, in California?

If so, there’s no time like the present. Before you get started, it’s wise to study up on the licensing and bonding requirements for launching your business. While the process isn’t complicated, it does take some time and resources.

You’ll also want to be well-versed in licensing costs – and other associated expenses – for starting your liquor business, so you can factor these costs into your preliminary business plan.

So, how do you get a liquor license in California? To help you out in the beginning, we’ve prepared this guide with the main steps of the licensing process.

Choose your liquor license type

beercaliforniaBefore you apply for your license, you have to define what your business’s purpose is. Then you can choose among the California liquor license types.

There are two main categories of licenses: on-sale and off-sale. On-sale licenses are needed when you are selling alcohol in a bar, restaurant, club, theater, museum or other public premises, as well as on a plane, train or boat. Off-sale licenses, on the other hand, are required if you are a producer, importer or wholesaler of beer, wine or other alcohol.

Not sure which category your business belongs in? Check the Common License Types and Their Basic Privileges document, prepared by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), for all the information about each license type.

The cost of your liquor license will vary, based on a number of factors. For more information, take a look at our guide to see the estimated California liquor license cost.

Getting your license

Location

Winery fun Once you know what kind of ABC liquor license you need, you have to choose your selling location. The ABC can issue you a license only if you can showcase your physical retail space, which has to be a commercial location (not residential).

You must submit your documents proving ownership, lease, or letter of intent with a prospective landlord. These documents should be in the name of your business entity, the same as on your application papers.

Zoning permit

You’ll be required to check with the zoning department of your local city or county authorities, as to whether you can sell alcoholic beverages in the area. The ABC needs a zoning permit, also known as a Conditional Use Permit (CUP), before it can issue your license. The permit is different from a license, because it regulates only the status of the location where your business operates. The license gives you the actual right to sell alcohol.

You’ll have to contact a planner at your local zoning or planning department, who will be able to tell you the details about the permit you need. The next step is to file the zoning application, which includes specialized maps, and to notify the residents in the area about your plans. You may be asked to present your project at a public hearing, to explain why you’re a good candidate for selling alcohol in the community.

The application

Once you’ve secured your retail location and zoning permit, you can proceed with your actual application with the ABC. You will also have to supply the Zoning Affidavit – or ABC Form 255 – in order to prove your business is not violating any zoning rules.

In addition to these documents, be ready to submit the following information:

  • your business entity status
  • escrow information in case of license transfer
  • personal background profiles
  • sources of your funds
  • list of license expenses
  • lists of residents, churches, schools, hospitals, and public playgrounds in your business’ vicinity

You also have to thoroughly notify the residents in the area about your plan to open a liquor-selling place. This includes a written note at your location, a newspaper public notice and letters to all residents within 500 feet.

You can review the whole Application Process Flow chart, to get a complete understanding of all the steps after you file your application.

If you plan to sell, or produce, wine and beer only, you can apply directly with the ABC. However, if you want to sell hard liquor, you will first have to buy the license from a private seller or a broker, because the ABC is no longer issuing these licenses. An escrow meeting the requirements of the ABC will have to be opened for the transfer of the license, which usually costs under $1,000. As mentioned earlier, a proof of the escrow is submitted along with the official application with the ABC.

Ready to start?

Now that you have an idea of the licensing process, you can begin the process of opening your own liquor shop or bar.

Don’t forget that in some cases, you might be also required to obtain a California alcohol bond. The bonding amount varies depending on the location, as different local authorities have different requirements.

Lance Surety Bond Associates can assist you in the bonding process, so don’t hesitate to call us at 877.514.5146 to get help with your bonding.

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Victor Lance is the founder and president of Lance Surety Bond Associates, Inc. He began his career as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving two combat tours. As president of Lance Surety, he now focuses on educating and assisting small businesses throughout the country with various license and bond requirements. Victor graduated from Villanova University with a degree in Business Administration and holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.