Your Guide to Alcohol Service Laws in the United States

In the United States, Alcohol has always been a part of the country’s history. Upon the arrival of the earliest settlers into the original thirteen colonies, water sanitation was poor. As a result, many early Americans would consume alcohol simply because it was something to drink.  

In 1917,  the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was made, declaring the recreational consumption of alcohol illegal across the country. This was the first of many alcohol regulations to come and marked the United States’ entrance into a 13-year era of prohibition, which gave rise to organized crime. 

Although enjoyed casually by tens of millions of Americans every day, alcohol is heavily regulated as new mandates continue to come into effect to ensure the safe and secure service of alcohol. 

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These are some of the essential laws and legalities behind purveying alcohol that any alcohol consumer or server can benefit from knowing. 

Federal vs State Regulation

The regulations that govern the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States occur at the state and federal levels. Occasionally, individual townships and municipalities also can determine local laws surrounding alcohol regulation. 

While the legal drinking age is a federal standard maintained across the entire country, state legislation often outlines things like when establishments can sell alcohol. For example, in New York state, alcohol can be served and purchased until 4 am, much later than in California, where you cannot sell alcohol between 2 am and 6 am.  

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Single states also have the power to set regulations around the consumption of alcoholic beverages. For example, as of July 1st, California will be mandating Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) certification for all alcohol servers and managers. This certification can be earned by passing a state exam which servers can prepare for by enrolling in a responsible beverage service training program online, such as Userve.  

Federal Law

It is federal law across the United States that the legal age of consumption of alcoholic beverages is 21 and that alcohol can only be purchased from specific vendors that are licensed in the sale and service of alcohol. This can include liquor stores, convenience stores, gas stations, bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.

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Current Governing Power of Individual States

The 21stAmendment to the United States Constitution, which repealed national prohibition and re-established alcohol consumption as an act of leisure and recreation, gave individual states the authority to: 

  • Determine if they will allow the sale and possession of alcohol in their state
  • Decide whether or not to import alcohol into the state or produce it domestically 
  • Establish the process for alcohol distribution and where it will be sold 
  • Determine who can legally be in possession of an alcoholic beverage without purchasing it

It is essential to be aware of how alcohol is governed in the United States, including where and when it can be purchased, who can legally consume it, and its negative impact.

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