An alcohol licence is a licence to sell alcoholic beverages. Businesses that do not have the appropriate alcohol licence can face compliance action. Sanctions include both fines and prison. Here is a straightforward guide to alcohol licensing and how to get one for your business.
Basic rules around serving alcohol
In a nutshell, you need an alcohol licence to sell alcohol unless it is sold as part of a food product. You do not need an alcohol licence to provide alcohol for free e.g. at an event.
Likewise, you do not need a licence if you are simply allowing patrons to drink their own alcohol on your premises (bring your own bottle or BYOB). Charging for corkage is different from selling alcohol.
The rules around when you do and do not need an alcohol licence are the same regardless of what type of business you are running. For example, the rules for cafes are the same as the rules for restaurants and bars. Likewise, the rules for online sales are the same as for offline ones.
Please note that even when you don’t need an alcohol licence, you still need to obey other laws. In particular, you need to ensure that alcohol is not sold to or consumed by minors. This includes alcohol served in food products, for example, liqueur chocolates. You also need to comply with any other relevant licensing requirements.
Why the alcohol licence was introduced
Fundamentally, the purpose of alcohol licensing is to ensure that alcohol is sold responsibly. This means that if you sell alcohol, you have a duty of care for the safety of individuals. You also need to safeguard alcohol from only being purchased by people who are of legal age to do so.
The alcohol-licensing process is there to make sure that anyone who sells alcohol is able and willing to comply with these requirements. Keep this in mind throughout the application process. In particular, make sure that your answers to questions thoroughly reflect your commitment to selling alcohol legally and responsibly.
Alcohol licences across the UK
In the UK, all licences can be grouped into one of three main categories: premises licences, personal licences and event licences. Event licences are known as Temporary Events Notices (TENs) in England and Wales, and occasional licences in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Premises licences and personal licences
Premises licences and personal licences are both issued for use over the long term. A premises licence is granted to venues. It sets out the conditions in which alcohol can be sold. For example, it specifies the days and times of day when alcohol sales are permitted.
Any venue with a premises licence must have a named individual who takes responsibility for ensuring that the venue meets the conditions of its premises licence. This individual has to have a personal licence.
TENs and occasional licences
TENs and occasional licences are both short-term licences to allow alcohol to be sold at special events. This can mean anything from street festivals to family parties. TENs and occasional licences replace premises licences, but a responsible named individual with a personal licence is still needed.
Alcohol licences and mobile services
In principle, if you run mobile services such as food trucks, you are treated in exactly the same way as static services. In practice, it’s effectively impossible to get premises licences. This is because you would be required to show how you would comply with the licensing requirements in every single location where you sell alcohol.
Fortunately, it is entirely legal for you to make use of other businesses’ premises licences. It’s also fine for you to sell at events that have TENs or occasional licences. You still need to have a responsible named individual with a personal licence.
You could get a premises licence if you only sold alcohol in one specific location and then moved it elsewhere for consumption. For example, if you focus on private parties, you could sell the alcohol to the hosts from your headquarters, and then transport the alcohol to the event to be served to guests for free.
You could potentially take this a step further and run a mobile bar service without actually selling alcohol at all. Simply have the hosts buy their own alcohol then put this in your equipment (e.g. your own portable fridge) and serve it to the guests (again for free).
Alcohol licences in England and Wales
In England and Wales, alcohol licensing guidelines are set by the central government and the process of getting an alcohol licence is administered by the local authorities.
England and Wales have two forms of premises licence. These are regular premises licences and club premises certificates. Most businesses will need a full premises licence.
Club premises certificates are only for private members’ clubs that wish to sell alcohol to registered members and their guests. If a private members’ club also wishes to act as a function venue, it needs either a full premises licence or a TEN for each event.
Although the licensing guidance is the same throughout England and Wales, applications for premises licences are decided against local considerations. The only general advice that can be given is to do your research thoroughly. Think about what the specific local authority may ask and require. Connect with others who have gone through the process for advice and tips if possible.
To be awarded a personal licence, you need to be at least 18 and have the right to work in the UK. You must also have proof of relevant prior training. The Award for Personal Licence Holders (APLH) is the current standard in this area. You must not have had a previous personal licence revoked within the last five years to be considered.
If you meet all of these criteria and have no criminal convictions, you can expect to be granted a personal licence by a local authority which you can use in England and Wales. If you have criminal convictions, these may be a hindrance to getting a personal licence so it’s best to seek professional advice before making an application.
Alcohol licences in Scotland
In Scotland, alcohol-licensing guidelines are set down by the Scottish government and the alcohol-licensing process is administered by local authorities.
Scotland only has one form of premises licence and one form of personal licence. Occasional licences are granted in place of TENs.
Overall, the criteria for getting an alcohol licence in Scotland are much the same as in England. One key point to note is that Scotland has its own qualification for personal licence holders. It’s the Scottish Certificate For Personal Licence Holders.
Alcohol licences in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, alcohol-licensing guidelines are set down by the Northern Ireland Executive and the alcohol-licensing process is administered by local county courts.
The equivalent of a premises licence is a liquor licence. The equivalent of a club premises certificate is a certificate of registration under the Registration of Clubs (NI) Order 1996. The equivalent of a TEN is an occasional licence. Northern Ireland does not currently have personal licences.
Timeline and cost of getting an alcohol licence
Unfortunately, it’s currently impossible to give a guaranteed indication of the timeline and costs associated with getting an alcohol licence. The timeline varies according to the pressure on the local authority or court, and the cost varies according to the requests outlined in the application. The only golden rules are to be as thorough as possible in your application and to submit it as early as possible.