Despite the enduring popularity of digital retail, sending alcohol from one place to another is fraught with challenges. The question “can you ship alcohol?” may sound straightforward, but, in the United States, it encompasses Talmudic complexities.
Here is everything you need to know about why the process is so complicated, and when and how you can ship alcohol to lucky recipients anywhere in the country.
Why Is It So Hard to Ship Alcohol?
Like many regulations in the drinks industry, the intricacy of shipping alcohol is linked to Prohibition. When it was repealed in 1933, the constitutional amendment gave each state the power to set its own laws surrounding the distribution, production and sale of all alcoholic beverages.
These state laws vary enormously, explains Seth Weinberg, a partner at New York City law firm Weinberg Zareh Malkin Price and adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, where he teaches classes in food and beverage law. If you’re shipping alcohol across state lines, “you have to deal with both the state that is shipping the alcohol and the state where the recipient is located,” he says.
That’s a lot of regulations to decipher, especially for individuals without legal degrees who simply want to send a friend a bottle of booze for their birthday. “There’s no reasonable expectation a consumer would know any of this,” Weinberg says. “Consumers find out [about these laws] when they try to place an order and they’re either told they can or they can’t.”
How to Ship Alcohol Within the State
If you’re a generous individual with thirsty friends, you can’t simply pop a few bottles in the mail via the U.S. Postal Service or a provider like Fedex or UPS. This is true whether your intended recipients are located a few minutes away, or in a far-flung state on the other side of the country.
Instead, you’ll need to purchase alcohol from a licensed producer, retailer or distributor, and then have it shipped through them. This includes in-state wineries and breweries with direct-to-consumer permits, as well as e-commerce operations like Drizly or Minibar.
All those businesses are liable to uphold the varied alcohol shipping rules of their state. And there’s a lot of rules to learn. In California, for instance, there’s no limit on the amount of wine a consumer can receive. However, in New York, you can ship up to 36 cases of wine directly from a New York State winery to an in-state address each year.
“Wineries are the only type of alcoholic beverages that have direct-to-consumer rights in New York,” says Josh Heller, public relations specialist at the New York State Liquor Authority.
Meanwhile, Kentuckians can ship up to 10 cases of wine or beer and 10 liters of distilled spirits from licensed Kentucky producers to state residents. Texans, however, can only ship distilled spirits from licensed liquor stores located within the same county as their recipient’s address.
Wherever you’re located, your best bet is to contact a retailer or producer and ask them if they can deliver to the in-state address.
“As long as they can make a delivery under state laws, meaning there’s nothing to prohibit a common carrier from picking up a package and delivering it, then they can get it to the intended recipient without a problem,” Weinberg says. “[Alcohol vendors] should know whether or not they can do that.”
How to Ship Alcohol Between States
If you want to ship alcohol from one state to another, you’ll have to uphold the regulations of both states. This can be tricky.
In Delaware, for example, out-of-state alcohol has to be sent to a Delaware-based wholesaler, which can then deliver it to an individual resident. In West Virginia, an out-of-state distillery can only send its spirits to a retailer in what the National Conference of State Legislatures calls the “market zone” of the recipient’s home address. In Rhode Island and Arkansas, the person shipping the alcohol has to be present at the time of purchase, unless that Arkansan operation has a small-farm winery license.
Sadly, direct shipments of alcohol aren’t permitted from any state to Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To ship alcohol to someone there, use a locally-based business.
Given the labyrinthine nature of interstate shipping laws, Weinberg suggests asking a retailer if they’re able to send to your desired recipient. “The retailers are responsible for knowing the laws in their own state, and for knowing where from their state they can send products.” Alternatively, you could contact a retailer located in the same state as your recipient, so that your purchase might effectively turn into an in-state delivery.
Fortunately, at this stage in our increasingly online lives, neither approach requires hours of legwork. Apps like Minibar and Drizly provide digital alternatives to what might have once required multiple phone calls or in-person visits.
“You can facilitate it through any number of apps these days,” says Weinberg. “That’s part of why apps have these nationwide networks of retailers. It allows them to be three-tier compliant and avoid issues of shipping across state lines.”
In other words, an app with a national footprint might be able to connect you to a licensed retailer located in the same state as your intended recipient, so you can ship alcohol to them while steering clear of any three-tier-related legal infractions. We’ll cheers to that!