Major Changes to Wisconsin Liquor Laws Loom

Assembly OKs measure affecting production, distribution and sale of alcohol; heads to Senate for final approval
New Glarus Brewing Co.'s Spotted Cow
Photograph: Shutterstock

The Wisconsin Assembly last week passed a proposal 90-4 that would create a new division in the state Department of Revenue, which would enforce and oversee the state alcohol laws.

The measure, AB 304, now heads to the Senate, reported the Associated Press, which noted the absence of this unit has led to inconsistent enforcement of the law. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is expected to sign it into law.

The measure has broad support, including La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip, Anheuser-Busch, the Tavern League of Wisconsin, Molson Coors Brewing Co., New Glarus Brewing Co. (maker of Spotted Cow), the Wisconsin Craft Beverage Coalition, the Wisconsin Grocers Association, and the Wisconsin Wine and Spirit Institute, AP reported. Kwik Trip told CSP it had no comment on its support.

The only lobbying groups registered against the bill are the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and Wisconsin Farmers Union, according to

The “massive overhaul” to the laws affecting production, distribution and sale of alcohol passed with broad bipartisan support, AP reported. Not having this division now has caused inconsistent enforcement of the law, “and questions over how they affect new businesses that weren’t envisioned when the laws were enacted, supporters of the bill said,” according to the news agency.

Every level of the state’s alcohol industry governing the licensing, producing, selling and distribution of beer, wine and liquor is affected by the bill, AP said. “The so-called three-tier system, created in the 1930s, has been eyed for changes for years, but policymakers and the alcohol industry have been unable to reach agreement,” AP reported.

The three-tiered system was designed to prevent monopolies, so one company could not produce and sell alcohol at the wholesale and retail levels, the news agency said. “But for years the system has been criticized for not keeping up with changes in the industry, including the explosion of small craft breweries and the rising popularity of wedding barns.”

The bill would mandate new regulations for venues offering alcohol at special events, known generally as wedding barns, according to AP. They could get a permit to host events six times a year or no more than once a month or get a liquor license “to sell alcohol at as many events as they wish,” AP reported.

Bill supporters said it levels the playing field between wedding barns, which don’t need a license, and banquet halls, taverns and others who must get liquor licenses to operate, AP said, adding that wedding bar owners are most opposed.

The bill also would expand hours at wineries and regulate them like craft breweries and distilleries, AP said. “It would allow brew pubs to operate standalone retail stores and allow craft breweries to sell products from other out-of-state breweries,” said the report. “The bill would also create new guidance for contract brewing, winemaking and distilling, which is a growing segment of the industry.” The measure also creates a new statewide bartender license.

“Under current law, alcohol beverages are generally distributed to consumers under a three-tier distribution system: the producer sells to a wholesaler, the wholesaler sells to a retailer, and the retailer sells to a consumer,” according to 2023 Assembly Bill 304. “With specific exceptions, no person may sell outside the three-tier system and no person may sell alcohol beverages to a consumer unless the seller possesses a license or permit authorizing the sale.

“The bill eliminates most current law provisions relating to retail sales authority for brewers, wineries, manufacturers and rectifiers and replaces them with provisions creating a more uniform standard of retail sales authority for these producers,” the bill continues.

“Under the bill, a brewer, winery, manufacturer or rectifier (producer) may, under its division-issued permit, make retail sales on the production premises and establish full-service retail outlets depending on the producer's production volume,” it continues. “The bill authorizes a producer to make retail sales of its own products on the production premises, for on-premises or off-premises consumption. If the producer meets specified production thresholds, the bill also allows the producer to engage in full-service retail sales on the production premises and to establish from one to three full-service retail outlets away from the production premises at which full-service retail sales may be made.”

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