Kentucky’s 80 Different Liquor Licenses

Booze, if you haven’t noticed, is big business. Across the country the industry is creating jobs, selling product, and generating tax revenues. Governments have to respect the dark side of alcohol and regulate it accordingly, but like with any other profitable enterprise, they’re also under pressure to woo it. For some states that has meant increasingly the complexity of simple but strict laws, adding subtleties that encourage small business growth without granting carte blanche to the whole industry. For others that has meant the opposite: simplifying archaic, complicated statutes that serve as a barrier simply because they’re so damn hard to understand.

Kentucky sits decidedly in the latter category. After Prohibition the Bluegrass State was one of a few (mostly southern) states to adopt a “local option”: that is, individual territories could decide whether they wanted to be wet, dry, or somewhere in between. Over the years, desired changes were made incrementally, without regard to the whole body of law, resulting in complexities, redundancies and contradictions aplenty. A town could legalize alcohol sales only at the horseracing track, or only at a winery, or only in restaurants, provided that the restaurant sat at least 100 people and made at least 70% of its revenue from food. The chapter on types of local option elections did not match the chapter on types of “wetness.” Several whole sections were devoted to an option allowing a territory to permit only 3.2% beer, even though no territory had ever taken the state up on it. There were over 80 different types of alcohol licenses for a potential business owner, civic group or event planner to wade through.

Wet/Dry Map of Kentucky. Simple enough, right? Source: Kentucky ABC

As much as the laws drove consumers and businesses crazy, the State wasn’t particularly fond of them itself. As far back as 1985, the State Supreme Court Chief Justice ridiculed them as “a maze of obscure statutory language,” which were “confusing at best” and whose meaning was “anybody’s guess.” The commissioner of the understaffed and underfunded Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control described the laws as “piecemeal,” saying, “We do our best.” Finally, in 2012, then-Governor Steve Beshear set up a task force to examine the laws and make recommendations for their improvement. The group submitted its report a few months later, and a bill adopting most of their proposed changes went into effect in June 2013. Kentucky’s laws remain plenty complicated, but hey, so is every state’s. At least the home of bourbon no longer looks like an outlier.    

Laws, like government as a whole, tend to expand and elaborate over time. Most of the individual additions or changes have a good intention, but if we’re not careful the sum can become something less than its parts. When that happens it takes a disruption of some kind to force the hard work of a full-scale review. The craft boom has been that disruption, to some extent, bringing with it changes large and small to liquor laws across the country. Kentucky is on board, and they want you to know that if you want to go into the booze business there, there are only, like, 50 or 60 different license types to wade through now. [i]


[i] Sources:

2012 task force report: https://www.kyprevention.com/files/5014/8882/2526/2013-01_ABC_Report-_Executive_Summary.pdf

2013 law change (pages 712-766, see 733-735 and 739 in particular): http://www.lrc.ky.gov/statrev/tables/13rs/actsmas.pdf

2014 law change (pages 69-88): http://www.lrc.ky.gov/statrev/tables/14rs/actsmas.pdf

2017 law change (pages 315-380): http://www.lrc.ky.gov/statrev/tables/17rs/actsmas.pdf

Wet/Dry map: https://abc.ky.gov/Forms-and-Resources/Agency%20ResourcesForms/Wet-Dry%20Map%206-17.pdf

License type list: https://abc.ky.gov/Forms-and-Resources/Agency%20ResourcesForms/License%20comparisons%20(State,%20City,%20County).pdf

2012 Kentucky.com article: https://www.kentucky.com/news/politics-government/article44371632.html

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