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Alcohol Licensing

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In Wisconsin, a significant portion of the community alcohol environment is determined by the number, location, and character of the places alcohol beverages are sold or served. Local elected leaders can create thriving communities that support public safety and the health of their communities by ensuring a thoughtful alcohol licensing process and procedures.

This section covers both crucial aspects of licensing as well as conditions that can be put on a license to ensure safety, security, and common courtesy for neighboring businesses and residences.

Licensing in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, an alcohol retail license is a privilege granted by a municipality to a specific person, partnership, or corporation, to sell and/or serve alcohol beverages to customers at a specific location. Wisconsin municipalities (cities, villages, and towns) decide who will get alcohol retail licenses and who will not. The best time to deny a license application or to place conditions on a license is with the first application. While there are many important considerations in licensing alcohol establishments, contrary to popular beliefs, alcohol licenses do not equal economic development. In fact, having a high number of alcohol establishments in a community or in part of a community can cause more law enforcement calls, increase health costs, and therefore strain tight budgets. These issues should be considered before granting licenses.

Licensing Overview

Wisconsin is a unique state in many ways and one of those ways is how alcohol licenses are granted. Wisconsin is a local control state. That means that municipal governments across Wisconsin have the opportunity to shape the environment they want as to how, where, how many, and what kind of alcohol retail establishments are available in their community. In Wisconsin, an alcohol retail license is a privilege granted to a specific person, partnership, or corporation, to sell and/or serve alcohol to customers at a specific location, including (but not limited to) bars, taverns, restaurants, clubs, festivals, liquor stores, convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores, supermarkets, and pharmacies. Deciding which (and how many) people or businesses will get alcohol licenses, and which will not, is an important authority granted to Wisconsin municipalities (cities, villages, and towns).

Before granting licenses, locals should consider what kind of community they want to create. A technical term for places that sell or serve alcohol to consumers is “alcohol outlets.” The evidence shows that having an over-saturation of alcohol outlets can lead to a myriad of problems for a community and may in fact be a drain on the ability to thrive. When municipalities are thoughtful and have a clear and transparent alcohol licensing process, they can create thriving communities that are balanced with public safety and the health of their residents. Not every license needs to, or even should be, granted. Always remember that new alcohol license applications can be denied for any valid reason. If a business is sold, or ownership changes, the new owner’s application should be treated as a new application. It’s much easier to deny a new application for a license; but if there are problems, it’s possible to suspend, revoke, or choose not to renew the license.

As it has been said, alcohol is no ordinary commodity. The responsibility in determining who, what, where, and how many can sell and serve alcohol to consumers is an extraordinarily important task.

Guidance on Wisconsin alcohol licenses process is outlined. There are many resources, and the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project is happy to discuss and assist you as you and your community think through how to take this important responsibility forward.

Licensing Resources

Awarding Alcohol Licenses Summary and Guide to Policies and Procedures

Because alcohol licensing is locally controlled in Wisconsin, effective advocacy for an improved alcohol environment requires detailed local knowledge. Use this comprehensive guide developed by the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project to better understand your community’s issues with alcohol licensing and its procedures for awarding alcohol licenses.

View the Summary and Guide (PDF)

Alcohol Licensing Process Diagram

In Wisconsin, alcohol licensing is a local process undertaken by municipalities. To better understand your community’s process, compare it to a diagram created by the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project showing many possible sources of information for licensing decisions.

View the diagram (PDF)

Applying Licensing Conditions

Municipalities (cities, villages, and towns) can grant or deny alcohol licenses. But municipal power to control how alcohol is sold and served doesn’t stop there. License conditions are some of the most effective tools that a municipality can use to ensure that the licensee follows the community’s standards. The governing board of a municipality (e.g., city council, village board, town council) or its alcohol license review committee can attach conditions to the license to ensure public health and safety. For example, there may be circumstances where noise, trash, or too many entrances and exits can be of concern, or more serious issues such as repeated violence or sales to youth under the drinking age. These can be addressed in the conditions attached to the license.

The best time to consider conditions is with the first application for a license. At that time applicants are often very willing to make reasonable compromises in order to get the alcohol license. Once a license is granted, the municipality cannot unilaterally attach license conditions. However, if problems arise after a license has been granted, it may be possible to persuade a licensee to agree to new license conditions as an alternative to a nonrenewal or revocation in order to remedy problems such as a high number of failed minimum legal drinking age compliance checks, neighbor complaints about loud amplified music, or multiple police calls for violence associated with the business.

If a community hasn’t been using conditions, we strongly urge your community to consider doing so and the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project is happy to provide technical assistance and training in this area.


Licensing Conditions (PDF)
License conditions provide the ability to set narrow controls on how an alcohol licensee operates, as described in this brief summary by the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project.