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Buying Beer, Wine, and Spirits Online

Online shoppers have many concerns. Whether a transaction will be taxed, how returns and refunds are handled, and when and how quickly orders are shipped are common, everyday concerns that come with buying online these days. These concerns generally have common answers that your online seller can tell you about. But there are some online purchases in which special rules and restrictions apply. Buying alcohol online is one of these purchases.

Federal and state laws regulate the manufacture and sale of alcohol in brick and mortar stores, and these restrictions extend to the Internet. This article provides an overview of some of the legal factors involved in buying beer, wine, and spirits online, as well as some background on alcohol purchases and the law. This information is meant for online customers buying for personal use; different legal considerations apply to commercial purchases.

It Matters Where You Live

Different states have different laws when it comes to purchasing alcohol. Since the end of prohibition in the 1930s, states have taken the lead in regulating the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and spirits.

Consider restrictions on buying alcohol in person. Depending on where you live, you may have trouble buying alcohol in grocery stores. Some states prohibit alcohol sales at certain times of day, while other states prohibit grocery stores from selling certain types of alcohol entirely. Many readers will be familiar with their local state-run liquor store, a common feature of so-called control states that rely on state-owned wholesalers and retailers to regulate and tax alcohol sales. On the other hand, some readers won’t have heard of state-run liquor stores at all. This illustrates the problem. Where you live can greatly affect what laws apply to purchasing alcohol.

These state-by-state variations extend to the world of online sales. There may be limits on the amount and type of alcohol that you can have shipped to your state. For example, Virginia has a one-gallon per person limit on bringing alcohol into the state. Violators can face up to one year in jail and a fine. Some states are more permissive. California imposes some restrictions on transporting alcohol into the state, but there’s no overall limit on bringing in beer, wine, or spirits for personal consumption.

You should check with your state’s alcohol beverage authority for up-to-date information that applies to you. Also, consumers returning from abroad or receiving international shipments face U.S. Customs restrictions. Generally, one liter per person can be brought into the country duty-free. Any more than that will be subject to duty.

Age Restrictions Still Apply

The normal age restrictions for buying alcohol apply online as well. Online customers must be at least twenty-one years of age to legally purchase beer, wine, and spirits. Breweries, wineries, and distilleries that sell online must still be licensed by state agencies and obey state laws; they will take steps to verify the age of their online customers. Sellers based abroad should do the same as well. The success of these efforts is debatable. A 2012 University of North Carolina study found that minors could often evade age restrictions when buying beer, wine, or spirits online.

Shipping Alcohol

There are shipping restrictions when it comes to alcohol. Most importantly, federal law prohibits the United States Postal Service from carrying “all spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented, or other intoxicating liquors of any kind." So you can’t mail alcohol. The Postal Service will check if it suspects a package contains alcohol, and will confiscate it as well.

Private carriers such as FedEx and UPS will ship and deliver alcohol. Here, too, there are extra steps involved though. Carriers are required to report alcohol-shipping information in compliance with state law. You might be asked to fill out a form indicating that you are shipping alcohol. Finally, company policies generally require deliverers to verify the legal age of recipients of alcohol shipments as well.

Some Legal Background: Alcohol and Constitutional Law

There aren’t many goods that make it into the U.S. Constitution. But alcohol is one of them. The Prohibition saw the Eighteenth Amendment ban the manufacture, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors” nationwide, followed by the Twenty-First Amendment’s repeal of those same provisions. It’s worth noting that the Twenty-First Amendment didn’t prohibit states from banning or otherwise regulating alcohol. That’s why most of this article has focused on state laws.

Today’s patchwork of state laws occasionally leads to conflict. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Granholm v. Heald. The case held that states couldn’t permit in-state wineries to directly ship to customers while prohibiting out-of-state wineries from doing so. The Court concluded that this unconstitutionally discriminated against out-of-state commercial interests in violation of the Commerce Clause.

Getting Legal Help

Whether you run a small business or have an interest in buying beer, wine, and spirits online, consulting a knowledgeable attorney can help you navigate the applicable federal and states laws.

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