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Here's an oft-repeated question: can I "brown bag" — bring my own wine — in a restaurant, hotel or bar that holds a liquor license in Tennessee?

Surprise, surprise — yes, you can. In an unusual twist of Tennessee liquor laws, it is legal to brown bag into a restaurant, bar or club that holds a liquor-by-the-drink license. However, it is still ultimately up to the owner to decide whether customers can bring in their own beer, wine or spirits.

Brown bagging raises numerous questions:

Can a server uncork a bottle of wine for a customer? Can the server provide glassware? Once opened, should a server pour wine into a glass? Can the server bring in an ice bucket and chill the wine or champagne?

The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission will look at control when determining whether a restaurant has violated the law concerning brown bagging. As with so many other liquor “laws,” none of the laws concerning what a restaurant can do with brown-bagged wine are actually written down somewhere.

We believe it is safe for a server to uncork a bottle of wine and provide glassware. This shows very little control over the wine.

When the server pours the wine, however, we believe the server may be exercising too much control over the customer’s wine. We recommend that customers pour their own wine, in order to avoid stepping over that unwritten line of what is legal, and what is not.

Setups are recognized as part of standard services for brown bagging. A server can provide things like glasses and ice. Mixing drinks, pouring wine and other bartending services fall outside the scope of what is generally accepted for brown bagging.
We find ourselves singing Nickelback’s “Bottoms Up”:

So grab a Jim Beam, JD, whatever you need.

Have a shot from the bottle, doesn't matter to me.

'Nother round, fill 'er up, hammer down, grab a cup, bottoms up!

Although brown bagging spirits is legal in Tennessee, the ABC has a strong policy against allowing bottles of spirits in a liquor-by-the-drink establishment. The ABC has indicated that it will cite a restaurant or bar owner if it sees a bottle of spirits on a table.
We encourage owners to ban brown bagging of spirits. There is nothing in the law that says that a liquor-by-the-drink establishment has to allow any form of brown bagging. You can clearly decide to allow brown-bagging wine, but not spirits.

Tennessee law also allows an owner to charge corkage for brown bagging. Although the law is not entirely clear, we believe that liquor-by-the-drink and sales taxes have to be paid on corkage.

Last but not least, if your restaurant or bar does not have a liquor license, it may be illegal to allow customers to bring wine or spirits into your bar. Metro Nashville, for example, prohibits beer permit holders from allowing alcoholic beverages onto the premises, unless the establishment also has a liquor license.

If all this seems terribly confusing, it is very simple to have a black-and-white rule. You can prohibit brown bagging. Nothing stops you from prohibiting customers from bringing their own alcoholic beverages into your establishment. It is your restaurant, it is your liability, and ultimately, it is your decision.

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