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Wisconsin Alcohol Licensing & Permits

Standing up to be heard

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.

Alcohol 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, pharmacies and bowling centers. 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 that is not arbitrary or capricious. 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 (WisAPP) is happy to discuss and assist you as you and your community think through how to take this important responsibility forward.

Alcohol Outlet Density Summary

Measuring how closely alcohol retail businesses are located within a community and/or mapping the locations of alcohol retailers provides useful data to drive informed decision-making and to reduce alcohol use by reducing its availability, as explained in this summary by the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project (WisAPP).

What is an Alcohol Outlet?

An alcohol outlet is any retail alcohol business that sells alcohol beverages of any sort to individuals to drink either at the business location or elsewhere. While most people think of bars, taverns, restaurants, liquor stores, breweries and wineries, other alcohol outlets may be grocery stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, movie theaters, sporting venues, painting studios, and hotels.

What is Alcohol Outlet Density?

Alcohol outlet density is a measure of how many alcohol outlets are in a defined area and how closely packed they are within that area. The CDC defines high alcohol outlet density “as a high concentration of retail alcohol outlets in a small area.” (CDC Guide for Measuring Outlet Density).

Why does Alcohol Outlet Density matter?

The number, type and location of outlets selling and serving alcohol significantly impact community residents and businesses. Over-concentrating alcohol outlets increases the level of alcohol-related disorder and crime even when retailers comply with the law. Higher alcohol outlet density also increases the risk of excessive alcohol use and its associated harms, such as alcohol-driven violence. The CDC recommends regulating alcohol outlet density as “one of the most effective strategies for reducing excessive alcohol use and related harms.” (CDC Guide for Measuring Outlet Density).

Who decides how many alcohol licenses to grant?

In Wisconsin, municipalities (cities, villages, and towns) make local decisions on whether and how to grant retail alcohol licenses. The state provides a cap on on-premises “Class B” intoxicating liquor licenses. Municipalities may choose not to grant as many licenses as they are allowed by the state.

The state statutes provide authority for municipalities to grant retail alcohol licenses as they deem proper. Each Wisconsin municipality decides how many and which alcohol retailers to license, within statutory limitations. Wisconsin statutes limit the number of “Class B” intoxicating liquor licenses (on premises, e.g., restaurant, tavern, night club) available to each municipality. Although the exact calculations are complicated, the state quota for retail “Class B” intoxicating liquor licenses is about one for every 500 residents. There are no statutory limits on Class “B” fermented malt beverages (beer) licenses or on either type of Class A license (for off-premises consumption: “Class A” intoxicating liquor license, Class “A” fermented malt beverages license).

Not all alcohol retail outlets are licensed: some instead receive permits from the state. Although municipalities grant alcohol retail licenses, by statute the Department of Revenue (DOR) may provide permits for certain alcohol retail outlets (e.g., a brewer’s outlet, a ship, an outlet owned and operated by an American Indian tribe, or an outlet located at a racetrack or the state fair park.)

Although Wisconsin allows many more licensees per capita than are found in most other states, Wisconsin municipalities may further limit how many licenses they grant, by using a combination of case-by-case decisions, enacting tighter quotas by ordinance, and limiting alcohol retail businesses to certain zones or overlay districts.

Measuring the density of alcohol retailers (“outlets”) within a community and/or mapping the locations of alcohol retailers on an annual basis provides useful data to drive informed alcohol license decision-making.

What are tools for measuring alcohol outlet density?

For Wisconsin-specific information on how to use alcohol outlet density measurements to determine whether your community has a problem, read the Wisconsin Alcohol Project’s (WisAPP) Alcohol Outlet Density Summary document, Measuring Alcohol Outlet Density in Wisconsin: Does Your Community Have a Problem? (PDF)

The CDC provides two excellent resources for measuring alcohol outlet density:

Guide for Measuring Alcohol Outlet Density (PDF)
As a starting point to measuring outlet density in your community, read this guide, which includes key concepts, general steps, and basic measurement theory.
(Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2017)

Measuring Alcohol Outlet Density: A Toolkit for State and Local Surveillance (PDF)
For more detailed information on measuring outlet density, see this toolkit. Designed as a companion to the Guide for Measuring Outlet Density, it includes code, screenshots, and guiding questions.
(Fliss MD, Mesnick JB, Esser MB. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2021)

An excellent article for some simple user-friendly charts and formulas:

Sacks JJ, Brewer RD, Mesnick J, Holt JB, Zhang X, Kanny D, Elder R, Gruenewald PJ. Measuring Alcohol Outlet Density: An Overview of Strategies for Public Health Practitioners (PDF). J Public Health Manag Pract. 2020 Sep/Oct;26(5):481-488. doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000001023. PMID: 32732722; PMCID: PMC7263305.

Maps and other resources

The Community Maps Portal creates detailed county maps of all traffic crashes within specified time periods. An alcohol “flag” can separate alcohol-related crashes. (Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory, Community Maps Portal)

You can also use a Google account to save your maps and the data that you compile on your community.

Alcohol 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 (WisAPP) to better understand your community’s issues with alcohol licensing and its procedures for awarding alcohol licenses.

View the Awarding Alcohol Licenses Summary and Guide to Policies and Procedures (PDF)

Procedural Guidelines for Awarding Alcohol Licenses

The process for granting licenses to alcohol retailers (e.g., stores, bars, taverns, restaurants) in Wisconsin should be transparent with clear criteria and guidelines for approval. Use this resource created by the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project (WisAPP) to avoid issues with applicants.

View the Procedural Guidelines for Awarding Alcohol Licenses (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 (WisAPP) showing many possible sources of information for licensing decisions.

View the Alcohol Licensing Process Diagram (PDF)

Applying Alcohol 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 (WisAPP) is happy to provide technical assistance and training in this area.

Additional Alcohol Licensing Resources

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 (WisAPP).

View Wisconsin alcohol licensing conditions (PDF)

Alcohol Permit Resources

Brewer's Offsite Retail Location Summary

To avoid surprises by brewers’ pop-up retail outlets, the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project’s (WisAPP) summary on brewer’s permits explains what municipalities can do to regulate brewer’s offsite outlets.