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3 steps for getting a liquor license in New York

On Behalf of | Feb 24, 2022 | Hospitality & Alcohol Beverage Law

I remember handling my first application for an on-premises liquor license for a client (and now old friend) of mine many years ago. I remember pulling out the Alcohol Beverage Control Law (“ABC law”) along with its regulations in our “library” in my office.  To say that the law was incomprehensible would be a dramatic understatement.  Thinking that at the time, I called over to the New York State Liquor Authority (“SLA”) to ask some questions.  The person who answered the call was very helpful.  I thought I was all set until I had some further questions, so I called back.  I spoke to someone different this time, and going over some of the same information from the prior call with this person resulted in different answers.  To say that I was frustrated would also be a dramatic understatement.

Having a liquor license in your restaurant or hotel can exponentially increase your profit margins and, for obvious reasons, it’s an absolute necessity if you own a bar or a liquor store.  Whether you cater special events or offer eat-in service, customers will spend more with you when they can buy alcoholic beverages from your business.

Getting a liquor license, however, can be a very arduous process. Although the regulations have become a bit more progressive over the past couple of years (particularly during COVID), the ABC law is still very arcane.  Knowing that, some business owners actually delay or avoid getting a liquor license that would obviously benefit their business because of all of the red tape involved in the application process. Some worry that the effort involved won’t be worth it, or that the SLA will reject or, worse, deny their application.

With the right assistance, applying for a liquor license in New York does not need to be a complicated process.  There are several steps involved depending on the type of license you’re going to apply for, but there are some fundamental steps across the various license classes. If you complete them properly, you will dramatically increase your chance of success.

Step No. 1: Complete the Correct Application

The State of New York has a wide range of specialized alcohol and beverage licenses available for different kinds of businesses (e.g., restaurants, bars, breweries) or business needs (e.g., catering, event spaces, seasonal businesses). The first step is identifying what type of license you will need and  then, very importantly, identifying what information and documentation you will need to support the application.  This is a crucial first step.

Step No. 2:  Submit to Fingerprinting

As the owner or operator of a business applying for a liquor license, you have to meet certain criteria. Typically you cannot have a financial interest in a company importing, selling or manufacturing alcohol. You also need to be a United States citizen or a lawful permanent resident.[1] You also need to be at least 21 years of age.  There are many other requirements as well.

One of the biggest additional requirements is having your fingerprints submitted for a background check.  Applicants cannot have been convicted of a felony (unless, and only in some cases, they have received a Certificate of Relief from Civil Disabilities). Applicants also cannot be a police officer with arresting powers.

Step 3:  Gather Information and Documentation about the Business and its Premises

Filing an application for a liquor license is more than just filing a basic application. There is so much more to it.  Although each application’s instructions will have its own list of information and documentation which will need to be included with the application, to say that the SLA’s instructions can be less than clear is yet another understatement.  We provide our clients with (we hope) a simplified outline of the information and documentation that they will need in support of the license they are applying for (e.g., a copy of their lease, bank statements, a bond, renderings of the business, photographs of the facility when it’s completed, diagrams of the premises, etc.).  You’ll even need to include a copy of your proposed menu with the application.

There are other aspects that can effect whether you will be successful too, including, without limitation, if there are three or more other establishments with licenses near where you want to be, whether there may be a school or church (or other house of worship) nearby, or if the premises were previously or are currently licensed, whether the prior or current licensee has had issues with the SLA or law enforcement (e.g., underage drinking, drugs, etc.).  All this and so much more can impact the success of your application.

Understanding the necessary steps to take, the information and documentation you will need to obtain, and knowing what questions to ask, as part of the SLA license application process, will dramatically increase the likelihood that your application will be successful.

[1] In some cases, individuals who are nonimmigrant visa holders (e.g., they’re in the United States on, e.g., an E-2 treaty investor visa) from countries with reciprocal trade agreements with the United States may apply.