Everyone in the restaurant and bar business knows you must have a liquor license to sell wine and spirits. It's a crime to sell liquor without a license.
Outside the hospitality industry, a surprising number of businesses think nothing of "giving" away a glass of wine if you are shopping for expensive jewelry, clothing, or furniture. Many spas, hair stylists, and nail salons offer complimentary beer and wine.
Of course, you only get that free booze if you purchase something or are a serious shopper. We can't walk in off the street and expect a glass of wine for free.
Many of these businesses are selling liquor without a license. Committing a crime. The Beastie Boys sum it up well:
Most illingest B-boy, I got that feeling
'Cause I am most ill and I'm rhymin' and stealin'
The law specifically allows hairdressers and other licensed cosmetologists to serve alcohol. “Wine, beer, liquor or alcoholic beverages may be served to a patron without a charge, but no such beverages shall be served to a patron who is intoxicated or believed to be intoxicated.”
Art galleries are also specifically allowed to give away complimentary wine if at least 90% of revenue is from the sale of artwork and the gallery does not sell food or beverages.
Although cosmetologists and art galleries can serve complimentary liquor, other businesses do not have the same authorization.
There is nothing wrong with inviting some friends over to your house and giving them some free booze.
Doing the same in a retail business, however, raises questions. Giving away wine at a store or other business is a marketing tactic. Although the patron is not required to purchase anything, the goal is for the business to make sales.
We advise caution any time a commercial purpose is associated with complimentary beer, wine, or spirits. If you are entertaining at a truly private party, no license is needed. If you are selling something, you may need a license.
If you promote your event on social media, or your event is open to anyone that wants to come, and you are selling something, hire a licensed caterer or find another way to legally serve alcohol. You probably need a license.
Serving alcohol without a license is dangerous. Your insurance may deny coverage if one of your guests has a drink and then runs over a bus full of nuns, for example. That’s a quick way to put you out of business.
Keep in mind that a licensed bartender is not the same as a licensed caterer. If you need a liquor license for an event for your business, you need a licensed caterer. A “bartender’s license” only allows a person to work for a restaurant, bar, or caterer. A licensed bartender is not the same as a caterer with a catering license.