The Drinks Are on Them

In dominating the city’s liquor license scene, the law firm of McDermott, Quilty & Miller has lots to celebrate. The rest of us? Not so much.

State law dictates how many liquor licenses are allowed in each of Massachusetts’ municipalities. For most of the cities, provisions are in place to increase the number of permits as the population grows. Boston isn’t one of those places. In 1906—a time when the Yankees running state government mistrusted Boston’s Irish pols—the state decided its capital should have a hard cap. There are now 1,030 liquor licenses in Boston (675 full licenses; 355 for beer, wine, and cordials only), a number that hasn’t changed much over the past 100 years. And despite the fact that 55 new (albeit nontransferable) licenses were created in 2006, demand still far exceeds supply. Today, in most parts of Boston, a restaurant or bar owner can sell a full liquor license for $175,000 to $200,000. In the tony Back Bay, where licenses are at a premium, it can run as high as $450,000. Even the “cheap” licenses, for wine and beer, can cost $25,000 to $35,000—prohibitively expensive for many independent restaurant owners.

Even if a restaurateur has the money to buy a license, the process of procuring one takes three to four months (often longer, if a seller can’t be found immediately), which has made many an entrepreneur think twice about opening a restaurant in Boston.

Take, for example, the Leather District sushi spot O Ya, now regarded as one of the city’s best dining destinations. In the beginning, owners Tim and Nancy Cushman couldn’t afford a full license, but they didn’t dare try opening without one. “We knew it’d be the death of the business before we even started,” Nancy Cushman says. “If you go once and they don’t have [alcohol], you’re not going to come back.”

Instead, the Cushmans decided to delay opening while hemorrhaging cash on rent. Fortunately, they were launching at the same time that the 2006 batch of new licenses arrived—and they had good lawyers. They’d hired McDermott, Quilty & Miller.

Leaning back in his desk chair and talking softly in his native Long Island accent, Stephen Miller hardly seems like a restaurant godfather. He’s a bit round, his hair graying around the edges. On the day I meet him, he’s wearing a salmon-colored tie printed with dolphins.

Discussing how he got his start in liquor law, Miller points with pride to a framed 1988 Boston Globe article hanging above his desk. The headline dubs him “a rising star in restaurants,” and the story describes how, as a bottom line–minded owner, he had started up a string of profitable (if unadventurous) places. Essentially, he’d tried to turn restaurants into a science, analyzing the cost of every mozzarella stick and salt shaker down to the last penny. Despite the high praise, Miller got out of the business not long after the article was published. It was too time-consuming, and he wanted to be with his family more.

Having worked his way through Boston College Law School by tending bar at Daisy Buchanan’s, he’d already been taking on some liquor law cases on the side, so the natural next step was to dive into the practice full time. If he couldn’t turn the restaurant biz into a science, Miller figured, perhaps he could turn liquor law into one.