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ABC Issues First Bar Liquor License

ABC Issues First Bar Liquor License

By William T. Cheek III

September 2, 2010 marked an almost miraculous milestone that slipped by the vast majority of conscious Tennesseans.  The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission issued the first legitimate liquor license to a bar since before prohibition was enacted in 1919.

What about Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge? Blue Bird Café? Robert’s Western World?  All three illegally operated under restaurant liquor licenses, as did nearly every bar, music venue and watering hole in Tennessee.

Tennessee legalized liquor at restaurants in the 1960s. Before then, drinks were available, but just like corn whiskey from a still, ordering a Jack and Coke was illegal.  In most cities and towns, before liquor by the drink was legalized in the1960s, bars paid off the police or sheriff to sell drinks.  Many of these places also featured small, but equally illegal, casinos.

Legalizing drinks was very controversial in the 1960s.  Church groups teamed with bootleggers, crooked police and politicians, and illegal bar and casino owners to strongly oppose legalizing drinking.  One supporter’s mailbox was famously bombed.  As part of the compromise to legalizing drinking, lawmakers limited drinking to restaurants - excluding bars.

Over the years, bars claimed restaurant status, or presented falsehoods to the ABC, and liquor licenses were issued to hundreds of bars and nightclubs across Tennessee.  Problem was none were legit under the liquor laws.

When the ABC began cracking down harder on bars in 2009, revoking a couple of liquor licenses for 90 days -- the equivalent of the death penalty for most bars -- the legislature responded.  Pundits thought it may never happen, especially in an election year, but it did.  The legislature has created a new liquor license allowing bars to legitimately operate.

Although very controversial and long overdue, the fix was quite simple.  Lower the minimum amount of food an establishment has to sell to levels that are more practical for a bar.  Restaurants have to sell 50% food.  Under the new law, bars have to sell at least 15% food.

Bar owners are lining up statewide for the new bar liquor license. In a sign of the times, it is interesting to note that Tennessee’s first legitimate bar is not a honky tonk or country music hot spot, but rather an upscale gay bar and fashionable restaurant located on Church Street -- Tribe and Suzy Wong’s House of Yum.  The Alcoholic Beverage Group at Bone McAllester Norton helped this long-standing client obtain the first legal bar license in the State of Tennessee issued on September 2, 2010.

Will Cheek leads the Alcoholic Beverage Team  at Bone McAllester Norton, and regularly writes about issues impacting Tennessee restaurants and bars at his blog, Last Call.

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