Capitol Update

by Senator Howard Marklein

November 22, 2023

The Alcohol Bill - An Overview

This year, representatives and stakeholders from the three tiers of the alcohol industry collaborated on a massive bill that includes more than 30 reforms to our state statutes as they relate to alcohol regulation and operations in Wisconsin. These reforms are very good for small businesses, rural communities and people on every tier.
When I met with the stakeholders, I asked if everyone was happy with the bill. They said “yes.” Then I asked if anyone was unhappy with the bill. Again, they said “yes.” No single stakeholder got everything they wanted and they all had to give up things to reach consensus. This is truly a compromise bill that makes good changes for alcohol-related businesses in Wisconsin. It passed both houses with bi-partisan support. It passed the State Assembly 88-10 and the Senate 21-11.  In the Assembly, 60 Republicans and 28 Democrats voted for the bill.  In the Senate, 14 Republicans and seven Democrats voted for the bill. This was truly bi-partisan legislation.
This bill makes dozens of major changes to state law that are very good for small businesses and rural communities. Wisconsin is home to more than 50 small wineries, 40 established distilleries and many craft brewing operations.  There are dozens of these businesses in the 17th Senate District! This bill allows many of these small businesses to expand, collaborate and support each other in ways that were prohibited under current three-tier laws.
One of the most exciting pieces of this bill for small communities, in my opinion, is the option for breweries, wineries and distilleries to have up to four off-site retail locations (depending on their production levels) where they can offer tastings and sell product directly to consumers without going through a distributor. What does this look like?  A small winery on a country road, can now open a storefront in town where they can offer tastings and sell directly to customers right on Main Street! Let’s fill our vacant spaces with small, local business!
Following are some of the other changes and why they are important:

  • Creates Uniform Closing Hours for Retailers and Producers - Current law has different hours for different types of premises. So, a winery with a Class B licenses has to close between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m., unlike all other Class B license holders.  If an event is held at a winery, they cannot serve after 9 p.m., but if they are at a brewery, they may serve until 2 or 2:30 a.m.  This creates uniformity.
  • Allows producers to bring alcoholic beverages directly to licensed retailers and provide free samples to promote their own product - Removes the requirement that tasting samples must be purchased from a wholesaler or retailer. Producers would be allowed to bring and serve taste samples of their products to any retail location, including Class B and Temporary retail licensees. Producers currently have to sell their product to a wholesaler and then buy it back in order to serve a tasting sample! This is unnecessary.  This reform is very good for small businesses.
  • Allows recapping of bottles of wine - Current law allows for “recorking” of open bottles of wine that are sold at a restaurant. This bill adds “recapping” to allowable actions. Some wine bottles have a twist-top cap. Some have corks. Yes, we had to change the law for that.
  • Creates a statewide alcohol beverage seller and server license - Bartenders currently have to get an operators’ license for every municipality in which they work. This will create one statewide license.  In a community like Wisconsin Dells, an operator may be licensed in Wisconsin Dells, Lake Delton, Lyndon Station and more…
  • Clarifies Axe Throwing Facility Licensing - Current law limits what other businesses may be conducted at a licensed alcohol beverage retailer. This bill adds “axe throwing” to the list of exceptions and allows underage individuals to be allowed in the facility. Bowling is another example of this type of allowed activity.
  • Allows Retail licensees to prepare, store and dispense pre-mixed cocktails under certain conditions - Some bars want to create unique recipes for beverages in batches containing distilled spirits such as Bloody Marys, sangria, punches, Old Fashioneds, etc.  Current law prohibited this.
  • Increases funding for SafeRide programs - Increases the current SafeRide program surcharge on individuals convicted of OWI by $25, from $50 to $75. The bill also requires municipalities to provide information about the SafeRide program to all liquor license holders.
  • Defines what is considered an event venue, public place and what is excluded as a public place. – This bill clarifies which locations must be licensed in order to serve alcohol. New industries such as AirBnBs and Wedding Barns have created unregulated grey areas in the law. A Public Place is now defined as any venue, location, open space, room or establishment that is accessible and available to the public to rent for an event or social gathering. Exclusions include hotel rooms and other accommodations for overnight lodging, vacation rental properties for overnight lodging, provided it has beds for sleeping, a campsite on a licensed campground and tailgating locations in parking lots, driveways, yards, and professional football or baseball districts.
  • Creates No-Sale Event Venue Permit – Creates an opportunity for a wedding barn or public venue that hosts six or fewer events per year to continue operating without licensing.

I recognize that the Wedding Barn industry is unhappy with this legislation. For those who don’t know, wedding barns are exactly what they sound like. They are venues that host wedding ceremonies and/or receptions in a barn. Couples pay the venue owner various fees for use of the space. These facilities have been unregulated and did not require a liquor license, even though alcohol is often served in them. This bill creates parity for wedding barns as they relate to all other venues that serve alcohol.
First and foremost, the bill does not prohibit wedding barns. It creates two options for regulation. A wedding barn, or public event venue, that hosts six or fewer events per year may acquire a no-sale event venue permit that allows them to sell access to the space. Under this permit, renters can bring their own beer and wine and serve it to guests without charge, they can bring their own beer and wine and consume it without charge, they can obtain a Temporary Class B license for the event and sell beer and wine or the renter can hire a caterer to provide beer and wine at a hosted bar without charge (not a cash bar).
A wedding barn, or public event venue, that hosts 7+ events per year must obtain a Class B license similar to a restaurant or tavern. The fees are set by local municipalities and they will have to follow the liquor laws for restaurants, bars and other event venues. They will be required to have licensed bartenders, purchase product from wholesale distributors and observe service hours. In other words, they will have operate as a business that serves alcohol.
While I understand that there are wedding barn owners who preferred to be unregulated, they are running a business that serves alcohol. If they plan to rent their space for more than six times in a year, they will need to acquire a license and follow the law. What is the difference between holding a reception at a bowling alley banquet hall and a barn?
Again, the alcohol bill combined reforms for all three tiers of alcohol regulation in Wisconsin and received massive bi-partisan support. It was a collaborative effort that became one massive bill with more than 30 reforms to our state statutes. These reforms are very good for small businesses, rural communities and people on every tier of the alcohol industry in Wisconsin.

As always, please do not hesitate to connect with me to provide input, ideas or to seek assistance.  Send an email to sen.marklein@legis.wisconsin.gov or call 608-266-0703. I want to hear from you.