An Insider’s Guide to North Carolina’s ABC Liquor System (2023)

Why you can’t and how you can get the bottles you want

Scoring a bottle of beloved Blanton’s or Buffalo Trace bourbons around these parts has been likened to finding the golden ticket or winning the lottery—and you kind of have to do the latter to land one (see “The Liquor Lottery” sidebar). For bourbon and spirit lovers alike, the limitations and execution of NC’s state-run liquor system is confusing—even if you grew up here. So what’s the deal? And is the state-run system beneficial for consumers, bar owners and distributors? Here, we break down what being a controlled state means, why some bottles can’t be found at ABC stores and how to get the bottle you want.

The Basics

North Carolina is one of 17 “controlled” states, where spirituous liquor is sold through a state-run system. And, fun fact, of the four states that border North Carolina, only Virginia uses a similar model, while the rest are privatized.

So how did this happen? Post-Prohibition, the Wake County Board of Alcoholic Control was established by the narrowest of margins—1,356 votes—approving a controlled system that allows for regulating the sale of alcohol beverages under the monopoly system we still use to this day.

Currently, there are 25 ABC stores across Wake County, nearly half of which are in Raleigh… and while that may sound like a fair amount, consider how many locations you can purchase spirits in states with private liquor stores—think South Carolina, Georgia—or places like Arizona and Illinois, where it’s literally available at every convenience store, grocer, etc.

An Insider’s Guide to North Carolina’s ABC Liquor System (1)

State-Run vs. Privatized

For many, the debate over state-run vs. privatized comes down to price, selection, availability and ultimately control over what we can drink in NC. And if you ask Bryan Hicks, the general manager of Wake County ABC, he’ll tell you that NC’s system is ideal—but multiple Raleigh bar owners, distributors and general consumers will tell you differently.

“[The ABC system] is an archaic, terrible system that should be destroyed,” maintains one local bar owner. “I’ve been dealing with it for so long and seen so much and
it’s just ridiculous.”

According to the bar owner, as far as selection goes for consumers—with the exception of a handful of individuals—there’s not many distributors who are trying to bring anything new and interesting here. “Distribution companies don’t want to deal with the system, so they don’t bother coming into the state,” he says. He also points out the infamous limited selection in local ABC stores, and hard-to-get bottles that should be readily available—but aren’t (more on that to come).

It’s important to note as well that bars and restaurants with a “mixed beverage” license have to stock up at specific stores, or directly at the Wake County ABC’s warehouse—meanwhile, all 25 ABC stores are open to the public. Just not on Sundays.

And because our system is state-run, bars have to pay for bottles/cases they order in advance and wait for them to come, which may take multiple days, weeks or even months. “Sometimes by the time we get it, the trend or fad is over,” says another local bar owner. “And having the cash tied up while we are waiting for the product is hard.”

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Scarce Spirits + Static Pricing

From a consumer standpoint, logistics aside, Raleigh and Wake County residents best the state as booze hounds. Wake County ABC has the highest gross retail sales—excluding mixed beverage licensees—of any board in the state, and the second most gross sales overall. And all of the top five individual stores in the state for total sales are in Wake County (in order: Sandy Forks Road, Wake Forest, Village District, Triangle Town Mall and Capital Boulevard, and Appliance Court and Capital Boulevard).

You’d think that’d be good news for Raleighites, considering consumer demand and available square footage often determines what you can find on shelves. So why then are there bottles you can find out-of-state but not in NC? According to our ABC insider, “What has been explained to me is that if you’re a privately owned business, you can negotiate sales. For example, you may have to buy a lot of one product [from the distiller] that doesn’t sell well in order to get a product that does sell well.” In essence, the privately owned businesses scratch the distiller’s back, and the distiller’s scratch theirs.

But the reality is, popular spirits—bourbons like Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s and Weller—can almost never be found here, but slide on down to SC and you’ll likely be able to. Short of the holiday lottery, scoring a bottle from a rare shipment in NC would be as elusive as spotting a unicorn.

“Being a bourbon fan in NC can be pretty challenging,” agrees one local entrepreneur. “Finding favorites or new releases is virtually impossible—between a lack of options and inventory, and the lottery system. South Carolina stores don’t have the same inventory issues, so when I’m traveling through the state, I stop to pick up my favorite bottles and new releases.”

That said, on a positive note, the state-run system does mean consistency in pricing—so, for example, a bottle of Marker’s Mark will run you the same whether you’re in Apex or Boone. Same goes for high-end bottles. “You’re not gonna have to pay that retail price,” says the bar owner. “Pappy Van Winkle is $300 here instead of $1,500 in open states.” So no price-gouging here (however, some bottles will run higher here than in many other states).

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Ultimately, privatization of liquor is just like anything else. In essence, it’s an open market (think like price competing between adjacent gas stations). So if $1,500 is the going rate, there’s no control. But for independent operators, a private system means paying taxes, of course—though nothing on the order of our current model.

“I think the product would be cheaper if privatized,” contends one local hospitality insider. “We pay a $3.75 [mixed beverage] tax on every bottle we buy, which the consumer that walks in the ABC store doesn’t have to pay.”

Who Benefits

From ABC’s perspective, Hicks readily rattles off a list of reasons why our current setup is preferable. The biggest reason: Because it’s publicly run, the ABC system puts millions back into local governments. In the last fiscal year, Wake County ABC contributed more than $18 million to the county, nearly $3 million to Raleigh and more than $1.3 million to Cary.

But at the same time, that influx is tempered by unnecessary cost, as one local distributor argues: The ABC system requires quite the labor force of people who literally never touch a bottle of liquor. “Of 171 ABC Boards, 513 people have benefits and a salary who do not touch liquor bottles,” he says. “Every one of those boards has a general manager, at least three board members… and then you get to the store level, store managers and clerks. The board GM and the three board members do not touch liquor bottles. So, do the math.”

We should mention ABC also references other potential controlled-state benefits. Where a privatized system would likely lead to an influx of liquor stores, our limited locations means lower rates of youth and binge-drinking, says Hicks, adding: “A high density of retail locations is associated with more suicides, assault and other violence.” And there’s also the $5 million that went to programs tackling issues like substance abuse in NC.

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Clearly, no one is denying the significance of those social advantages. The debate is how to reap those benefits while also scoring that bottle you’re after.

Bottle Search

As it stands now, according to our Wake County ABC insider, if you’re looking for rare bourbon, the popular Village District store is probably your best bet. From there, hit the Sandy Forks store, or one of the higher-volume locations. And if you’re looking for something specific, Hicks suggests you call your local store. ABC, we’ve been told, keeps a tally of requests to gauge interest
and meet demand.

So bringing this full circle from that fateful 1937 vote, as liquor laws continue to loosen, what are the odds we ever become privatized? Well, according to our General Assembly informant, “there’s definitely an active effort to reform it. A lot of legislators want to privatize it—but they know that can’t be done easily because the state has been controlling it for so long.” There are also a few associations who support any efforts for it—like “the NC Retail Merchants Association and the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association, who both want to see privatization.”

That said, not all hope is lost, as “there seems to be continued interest in recent legislative sessions in changing how the ABC system works,” adds the General Assembly source. So, until then, bottom line—if you can’t find what you want, ask your ABC store to order it for you—or, just head west on I-40 or south on I-95 to another state.
Bottoms up.

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Is NC getting rid of ABC stores? ›

The current bill states that between July 2021 and January 2022, local ABC boards will stop operating and sell all their assets, including liquor, to the highest qualified bidder at a public sale. The money would go to the county's general fund.

How many cases of beer can you buy at one time in NC? ›

A: Without a permit, a person may purchase at one time: Not more than 80 liters of malt beverages.

How many ABC boards are in NC? ›

The 168 local ABC boards operate 432 stores statewide and employ over 2,870 people.

Do all NC ABC stores have the same prices? ›

The retail price of spirituous liquor sold in North Carolina ABC stores shall be uniform throughout the state. There are monthly discounts on selected items but these also are uniform across the state.

Can you buy alcohol on Sunday in NC? ›

Hours of Sale: Alcohol can only be sold or served Monday – Saturday between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. On Sundays, alcohol can only be sold, served and consumed after Noon. Remember, some cities and/or counties may further restrict Sunday sales.

Can you buy liquor on Sunday in NC? ›

Alcohol sales are limited on Sundays in NC

ABC stores are closed on Sundays. The 2017 “brunch bill,” signed into state law by Gov. Roy Cooper, allowed restaurants to begin serving alcoholic beverages at 10 a.m. on Sundays, The N&O previously reported.

Can you buy alcohol on Sunday in NC at Walmart? ›

For instance, you can't buy alcohol at Walmart on Sunday in Mississippi, while in Nebraska, Walmart sells alcohol from noon on Sunday.
What Time Does Walmart Start and Stop Selling Alcohol by State?
StateAlcohol Sale HoursAlcohol Restrictions
North Carolina9 am to 9 pm12 pm to 9 pm on Sunday
40 more rows
26 May 2022

Can you drink in public in North Carolina? ›

Open containers are generally neverpermitted in public places (such as a public sidewalk) unless an establishment has a specific permit. An open container violation carries the penalty of a Class 1 misdemeanor statewide.

Are bottomless mimosas illegal in NC? ›

Why not have bottomless mimosas with brunch? Because they're illegal in North Carolina. In the state, there is a regulation that prohibits the sale of more than one drink for a single price.

How long does it take to get a liquor license in NC? ›

If all required documents are submitted with the permit applications, a temporary permit can be obtained the same day in which it is received. For out of state permits and non-resident vendor permits, the application process takes approximately two weeks.

Is ABC the only liquor store in NC? ›

NC's state-local government model is the only one in the country. There are 50 county and 118 municipal ABC boards, some with only one store. Beer and wine are sold by private retailers in places that have voted in favor of it.

Who appoints NC ABC board? ›

The statewide statute says that a local ABC board has three members appointed by the board of county commissioners (if the ABC system was established by a county vote) or city council (if established by a city election). Board members serve three-year, staggered terms.

Why is liquor so expensive in North Carolina? ›

And speaking of taxes, the excise tax on spirituous liquor in North Carolina is 30 percent, calculated on a price that includes not only the wholesale price from the distiller but also the state warehousing freight and bailment charges and an extra markup for local ABC boards.

How many shots are in a fifth? ›

A standard bottle of alcohol, or a fifth, has 750 milliliters, which will give you about 16 shots or 16 cocktails. One shot is typically an ounce and a half. A mini or nip has 50 milliliters, and will give you one shot. A quarter pint is 100 milliliters and will give you two shots.

Is alcohol cheaper in NC or SC? ›

As expected, liquor is cheaper in South Carolina by a couple of bucks a bottle. Except Malibu.

Can you buy beer at gas stations in North Carolina? ›

In North Carolina, you can buy beer from gas stations from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday and after noon on Sunday. Gas stations have an 80-liter maximum of beer that can be sold at one time. Gas stations in North Carolina are allowed to sell cans and bottles of beer in 12-24 oz.

Can you buy beer in grocery stores in North Carolina? ›

When Can Consumers Purchase Beer in NC? In North Carolina, liquor is only sold at ABC stores that are run by the state. ABC stores are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Beer and wine are available at grocery and convenience stores.

Can you pour beer at 18 in NC? ›

Bartenders must be 21 years of age to mix drinks containing spirits. Waiters and waitresses in on-premise establishments who serve or sell alcoholic beverages must be 18 years of age.

Are flasks illegal in North Carolina? ›

In North Carolina, it's illegal for any person to transport an open container of any alcoholic beverage in the passenger area of a vehicle. This law applies whenever a vehicle is parked or being driven on a public roadway.


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