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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Can I bring a bottle of wine to a McDonald’s? What’s the corkage fee? Any recommendations?

—Gene M., Sammamish, Wash.

Dear Gene,

Whether or not your question is a joke, I’m happy to answer it because “Bring Your Own Bottle” and corkage policies are actually quite complicated. Besides, you’d have to try a lot harder to bother unflappable me.

When it comes to BYOB, you need to start by making sure you live in a state where it’s legal to bring your own wine into a restaurant—yes, corkage is illegal in some places, further complicated by local zoning and licensing laws. Most of the time, a restaurant is required to have a license to sell or serve alcohol to allow for BYOB.

There are exceptions—for example, in the state of New York, a business with less than 20 seats is permitted to offer BYOB even without a liquor license. Another exception is that New Jersey restaurants are allowed to offer BYOB specifically when they don't have a liquor license. All of these different laws can get confusing rather quickly. I know there’s also confusion about an imaginary loophole when a brand-new restaurant has applied for a license but hasn’t heard back yet. In the meantime they let customers bring in their own alcohol, but generally this practice is against the law.

Even if an eating establishment can legally allow customers to bring in their own wines, the owner might not want to. Not every place offers that service to its patrons. If it does, you might like to read my advice on corkage etiquette.

Now, circling back to fast-food restaurants, a handful of Burger Kings, White Castles and Sonics out there have experimented with adding beer or wine to their menus, and you may have seen some wine offered at Starbucks. You can probably imagine some of the problems that come with this—alcohol, of course, can’t be available in drive-through situations, the employee pool is largely too young to handle alcohol, service could slow down to check customer IDs, and insurance rates would go way, way up.

The way I see it, the biggest issues with fast-food restaurants serving alcohol is that very few are going to find it easy to obtain a permit, and as I’ve explained, without a license to sell and serve wine, it’s generally illegal to allow BYOB. After all, the premise of fast food is getting your customer in and out and fed as quickly as possible. There’s good reason to avoid applying that premise to alcohol.

For more on this topic, you also might like to read Is It Time to Open Up Corkage Laws? and Corkage Etiquette: What to Know When You BYO.

—Dr. Vinny

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