Do I Need a Liquor License to Sell Alcohol in Ohio?

If you have found this page, you are likely wondering if you need a liquor license to sell alcohol in the State of Ohio. To begin, it’s important to understand that alcohol sales in the United States have never been entirely deregulated. In 1970, the United States Supreme Court recognized that “in 1660 the precursor of modern-day liquor legislation was enacted in England which allowed commissioners to enter, on demand, brewing houses at all times for inspection. Massachusetts had a similar law in 1692.” The Colonnade Catering Corporation v. United States, 397 U.S. 72

Ohio follows this regulatory framework. In 1933, when the 21st amendment was passed ending prohibition, the States were expressly permitted to pass laws relating to the transportation, importation and use of alcohol within their borders.

Therefore, in modern day Ohio, you will likely need one of a variety of licenses to sell, manufacturer or distribute alcohol within the State – unless a narrow exemption applies. Depending on the unique attributes of your business, you will need a specific license that permits you to buy, sell, manufacture or distribute alcohol in Ohio. This regulatory framework can be complicated, but getting it right ensures that you do not subject yourself to potential criminal penalties as outlined below.

So, In short, yes – you absolutely need a liquor license to sell liquor in Ohio. Would it surprise you to know that possessing liquor sold by an establishment that is unlicensed is also prohibited by Ohio Law? Ohio Revised Code 4301.67 governs the illegal possession of spirituous or intoxicating liquor or beer. The statute states that “no person shall have that person’s possession of any spirituous liquor, in excess of one liter, in one or more containers, which was not purchased at wholesale or retail from the division of liquor control or otherwise lawfully acquired pursuant to Chapters 4301. and 4303. of the Revised Code, or any other intoxicating liquor or beer, in one or more containers, which was not lawfully acquired pursuant to Chapters 4301. and 4303. of the Revised Code.” That means that the establishment where customers purchase liquor must be licensed not only for the store to sell the liquor but also for the customers to possess it! 

Also remember that some types of alcohol are much more heavily regulated than others. For example, the State of Ohio maintains a public ownership monopoly on all bulk spirituous liquor sales in Ohio. Ohio’s system of state control represents a significant funding source for the state, as each sale of liquor is subject to ad valorem mark-up and excise taxes, which can be as high as $9.87 per gallon of liquor sold. The Division of Liquor Control enters into agency agreements with private entities to establish and operate State licensed liquor agencies throughout the state. 
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Penalties Under ORC 4301.99

Ohio’s liquor control laws contain a variety of statutes. Depending on which code section is found to have been violated through the adjudication process, penalties can vary. These penalties are specifically spelled out in ORC 4301.99.

  • Minor Misdemeanor: Violations of section 4301.47, 4301.48, 4301.49, 4301.62, or 4301.70 or division (C) of section 4301.65 or division (B) of section 4301.691
  • Fourth Degree Misdemeanor: Violations of section 4301.15, division (A)(2) or (C) of section 4301.22, division (C), (D), (E), (F), (G), (H), or (I) of section 4301.631, or section 4301.64 or 4301.67 of the Revised Code.
  • Third Degree Misdemeanor: Violations of division (B) of section 4301.14, or division (A)(1) or (3) or (B) of section 4301.22 of the Revised Code.
  • First Degree Misdemeanor: Violations of division (D) of section 4301.21, section 4301.251, 4301.58, 4301.59, 4301.60, 4301.633, 4301.66, 4301.68, or 4301.74, division (B), (C), (D), (E)(1), or (F) of section 4301.69, or division (C), (D), (E), (F), (G), or (I) of section 4301.691 of the Revised Code.
  • Monetary Fines and Public Service: Fines are provisioned for under Ohio law for violations of section 4301.63 or division (B) of section 4301.631 of the Revised Code and they can take the form of public work ordered by the court. 
  • Fifth Degree Felony: Violations of section 4301.636 of the Revised Code.
  • Repeat Offenders: You should know that when it comes to violations of the liquor control laws, repeat offenders may be treated differently than as outlined above. This becomes incredibly complicated and it is best to speak with a competent liquor license lawyer in Ohio. 

Notices of Liquor Control Violations in Ohio Under ORC 4301.991


The law governing liquor licenses in Ohio can be found in part in Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4301 (Ohio’s Liquor Control Law). One unique element to Ohio’s criminal laws related to liquor control is an Ohio liquor law statute commonly referred to as the “notice of conviction or acquittal of liquor control violations.” This statute is found in Ohio Revised Code 4301.991 and reads in pertinent part that:

“Upon the trial of a permit holder, the permit holder’s employee, or the permit holder’s agent for a violation of sections 4301.01 to 4301.74 of the Revised Code occurring on the premises for which a permit issued by the department or, beginning on July 1, 1997, the division of liquor control is held by the permit holder, the magistrate or the clerk of the municipal court or of the court of common pleas shall, if the permit holder, the permit holder’s employee, or the permit holder’s agent is found guilty, within seven days after the sentence has been imposed mail a certified copy of the record of such conviction to the director of public safety, who shall forward a copy of that certified copy to the director or, beginning on July 1, 1997, the superintendent of liquor control. If the permit holder, the permit holder’s employee, or the permit holder’s agent is found to be not guilty after a trial on the merits, the magistrate or clerk of the municipal court or of the court of common pleas shall within seven days mail a certified copy of the journal entry to the director or superintendent of liquor control and the permit holder shall not be cited to the liquor control commission for any alleged violations of law or rules based upon specifications contained in the indictment, information, or affidavit in the case.”

This means that after a conviction for a violation of Ohio’s liquor control laws, the statute provides that a notice will be sent to a variety of executive officers – namely the superintendent of liquor control and director of public safety. This is similarly true for not guilty verdicts. Therefore, if you are found guilty of selling liquor without a license, for example, many of the highest state decision makers will be notified of the criminal conviction or lack thereof. It is also important to note that this guilty verdict could relate to violations of any of the sections ranging from ORC 4301.01 to ORC 4301.74 so the notice provisions apply to any violations of any of the statutes in that sequence – not just selling liquor without a license in Ohio.

Exemptions to Ohio Liquor Control Law

Ohio Revised Code §4301.20 contains several scenarios that are exempt from Ohio Liquor Control laws. We strongly advise you to seek legal representation to opine on your specific situation if you believe one of these categories applies. The categories provided for in the law are as follows:

  • The storage of intoxicating liquor in bonded warehouses, established in accordance with the acts of congress and under the regulation of the United States, located in this state, or the transportation of intoxicating liquor to or from bonded warehouses of the United States wherever located;
  • A bona fide resident of this state who is the owner of a warehouse receipt from obtaining or transporting to the resident’s residence for the resident’s own consumption and not for resale spirituous liquor stored in a government bonded warehouse in this state or in another state prior to December 1933, subject to such terms as are prescribed by the division of liquor control;
  • The manufacture of cider from fruit for the purpose of making vinegar, and nonintoxicating cider and fruit juices for use and sale;
  • A licensed physician or dentist from administering or dispensing intoxicating liquor or alcohol to a patient in good faith in the actual course of the practice of the physician’s or dentist’s profession;
  • The sale of alcohol to physicians, dentists, druggists, veterinary surgeons, manufacturers, hospitals, infirmaries, or medical or educational institutions using the alcohol for medicinal, mechanical, chemical, or scientific purposes;
  • The sale, gift, or keeping for sale by druggists and others of any of the medicinal preparations manufactured in accordance with the formulas prescribed by the United States Pharmacopoeia and National Formulary, patent or proprietary preparations, and other bona fide medicinal and technical preparations, which contain no more alcohol than is necessary to hold the medicinal agents in solution and to preserve the same, which are manufactured and sold as medicine and not as beverages, are unfit for use for beverage purposes, and the sale of which does not require the payment of a United States liquor dealer’s tax;
  • The manufacture and sale of tinctures or of toilet, medicinal, and antiseptic preparations and solutions not intended for internal human use nor to be sold as beverages, and which are unfit for beverage purposes, if upon the outside of each bottle, box, or package of which there is printed in the English language, conspicuously and legibly, the quantity by volume of alcohol in the preparation or solution;
  • The manufacture and keeping for sale of the food products known as flavoring extracts when manufactured and sold for cooking, culinary, or flavoring purposes, and which are unfit for use for beverage purposes;
  • The lawful sale of wood alcohol or of ethyl alcohol for external use when combined with other substances as to make it unfit for internal use;
  • The manufacture, sale, and transport of ethanol or ethyl alcohol for use as fuel. As used in this division, “ethanol” has the same meaning as in section 122.075 of the Revised Code.
  • The purchase and importation into this state or the purchase at wholesale from A or B permit holders in this state of beer and intoxicating liquor for use in manufacturing processes of nonbeverage food products under terms prescribed by the division, provided that the terms prescribed by the division shall not increase the cost of the beer or intoxicating liquor to any person, firm, or corporation purchasing and importing it into this state or purchasing it from an A or B permit holder for that use;
  • Any resident of this state or any member of the armed forces of the United States, who has attained the age of twenty-one years, from bringing into this state, for personal use and not for resale, not more than one liter of spirituous liquor, four and one-half liters of wine, or two hundred eighty-eight ounces of beer in any thirty-day period, and the same is free of any tax consent fee when the resident or member of the armed forces physically possesses and accompanies the spirituous liquor, wine, or beer on returning from a foreign country, another state, or an insular possession of the United States;
  • Persons, at least twenty-one years of age, who collect ceramic commemorative bottles containing spirituous liquor that have unbroken federal tax stamps on them from selling or trading the bottles to other collectors. The bottles shall originally have been purchased at retail from the division, legally imported under division (L) of this section, or legally imported pursuant to a supplier registration issued by the division. The sales shall be for the purpose of exchanging a ceramic commemorative bottle between private collectors and shall not be for the purpose of selling the spirituous liquor for personal consumption. The sale or exchange authorized by this division shall not occur on the premises of any permit holder, shall not be made in connection with the business of any permit holder, and shall not be made in connection with any mercantile business.
  • The sale of beer or intoxicating liquor without a liquor permit at a private residence, not more than five times per calendar year at a residence address, at an event that has the following characteristics:
    • The event is for a charitable, benevolent, or political purpose, but shall not include any event the proceeds of which are for the profit or gain of any individual;
    • The event has in attendance not more than fifty people;
    • The event shall be for a period not to exceed twelve hours;
    • The sale of beer and intoxicating liquor at the event shall not take place between two-thirty a.m. and five-thirty a.m.;
    • No person under twenty-one years of age shall purchase or consume beer or intoxicating liquor at the event and no beer or intoxicating liquor shall be sold to any person under twenty-one years of age at the event; and
    • No person at the event shall sell or furnish beer or intoxicating liquor to an intoxicated person.
  • The possession or consumption of beer or intoxicating liquor by a person who is under twenty-one years of age and who is a student at an accredited college or university, provided that both of the following apply:
    • The person is required to taste and expectorate the beer or intoxicating liquor for a culinary, food service, or hospitality course.
    • The person is under the direct supervision of the instructor of the culinary, food service, or hospitality course.

No Free Drinks

Ohio law also prohibits any license or permit holder from providing free alcoholic beverages in connection with the operation of a permitted business. In particular, Ohio Revised Code §4301.22(D) [] states that:

No holder of a permit shall give away any beer or intoxicating liquor of any kind at any time in connection with the permit holder’s business. However, with the exception of an A-1-A permit holder that also has been issued an A-2 or A-2f permit, an A-1-A, A-1c, or D permit holder may provide to a paying customer not more than a total of four tasting samples of beer, wine, or spirituous liquor, as authorized by the applicable permit, in any twenty-four-hour period. The permit holder shall provide the tasting samples free of charge, at the permit holder’s expense, only to a person who is twenty-one years of age or older. The person shall consume the tasting samples on the premises of the permit holder. A distributor is not responsible for the costs of providing tasting samples authorized under division (D) of this section.

While this law prohibits a bar from saying “drinks on the house,” it does not prohibit a bar from allowing one patron to pay for numerous alcoholic drinks for a group.

About the Authors: Sawan & Sawan is a multi-generational, family owned law firm practicing law in the areas of car accidents, truck accidents, insurance claims, personal injury, litigation and more. Our firm practices law in Ohio (Toledo, Columbus), Georgia, Michigan and Florida

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