TTB Modified Tax Filing Timeframe for Some Taxpayers

On January 4, 2017 TTB published in the Federal Register a temporary rule, T.D. TTB–146, modifying the tax filing timeframe for taxpayers who fall below a certain monetary threshold and removing the bond requirements for certain eligible taxpayers who pay taxes below certain maximum amounts on distilled spirits, wine and beer. See 82 Fed. Reg. 1108 (Jan. 4, 2017). Congress mandated these changes when it enacted the PATH Act in December 2015, and the changes became effective on January 1, 2017. The temporary rule involves two primary changes:

  1. Taxpayers who do not reasonably expect to be liable for more than $1,000 in alcohol excise taxes (for distilled spirits, wine and beer) in the calendar year and were not liable for more than $1,000 in the prior year can pay their taxes annually rather than quarterly or semi-monthly. If a taxpayer has multiple locations, the $1,000 threshold applies to the combined total. A taxpayer must select the return period on its return.
  2. Taxpayers who do not reasonably expect to be liable for more than $50,000 in alcohol excise taxes (for distilled spirits, wine and beer) in the calendar year and were not liable for more than $50,000 in the prior year are exempt from filing bonds to cover operations or withdrawals. In order to take advantage of this exemption, the taxpayer must notify TTB of its eligibility and receive TTB approval. New applicants will do this during the initial application process and existing taxpayers can do so through an amendment to their registration or brewer’s notice. Ironically, the bond exemption does not apply to taxpayers that conduct operations or withdrawals of wine or spirits for industrial (as opposed to beverage) use.

TTB has issued additional guidance on the PATH Act’s impact in Industry Circular 2016–2 (Dec. 30, 2016).

DC Council Passes Amendments to Alcohol Beverage Code

In early December 2016, the Council of the District of Columbia (the Council) unanimously passed the Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2016 (the Act). The Act amends a number of provisions of DC’s alcohol beverage laws, several of which particularly affect DC manufacturers, brew pubs, wine pubs and distillery pubs.

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TTB Changes Under the Fall Edition of the Unified Agenda

On December 23rd, 2016 the federal government published its Fall edition of the “Unified Agenda” – a bi-annual compilation of all ongoing federal rulemaking projects. Attached is a copy of the TTB detail from this latest Unified Agenda. As always, projected future publication dates should be viewed with a very healthy dose of skepticism.

TTB’s portion of the Unified Agenda identifies the following “priority” items:

  1. Final rules implementing the International Trade Data System (ITDS). TTB published these final rules on December 22, 2016 – mission accomplished.
  2. Revisions to TTB regulations to implement the “Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015” (PATH Act). Among other things, the PATH Act amended the Internal Revenue Code definition of “hard cider” and changed the bonding requirements for small excise taxpayers. While listed as a priority for action in late 2016, TTB has shown little ability to quickly amend its regulations to reflect statutory changes enacted by Congress (see Taxpayer Relief Act note below).
  3. Revisions to modify and streamline TTB’s wine, distilled spirits, and malt beverage labeling regulations. This item has appeared in the Unified Agenda for several years, and apparently stems from a January 2011 Executive Order requiring the identification and elimination of outmoded and burdensome regulations. The Unified Agenda lists a December 2016 publication date for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on this subject.
  4. Back on the “priority” list of this Unified Agenda is the NPRM permitting the self-certification of nonbeverage product formulas. Projected publication of that NPRM now has slipped to September 2017.
  5. A project to combine the current four forms required for reporting by distilled spirits plants (DSPs) into two report forms now receives priority status. Originally proposed in December 2011, TTB now expects to publish a 2017 “Supplemental NPRM” to gather more comments on the subject.

Among the other TTB rulemaking projects industry members may take an interest in are the following:

  1. TTB’s allergen labeling rulemaking, initiated in April 2005, remains on the Unified Agenda, but under the heading of “Next Action Undetermined.”  This suggests that TTB may walk away from mandatory allergen labeling altogether.
  2. TTB is considering amendments to the “standards of fill” for wine and distilled spirits, with an NPRM projected date of April 2017.
  3. A new item proposes an NPRM to amend the wine labeling regulations in order to better address the labeling of flavored wines.  The project arises from a petition received by TTB and projects an April 2017 publication date.
  4. TTB has withdrawn (and presumably abandoned) the rulemaking project, commenced in 2010, to further define the use of terms like “estate bottled” on wine labels.
  5. TTB continues to plan for a “Supplemental NPRM” to solicit additional comments on the use of an American viticultural area as an appellation on a wine finished in an adjacent state.  TTB now expects to publish the Supplemental NPRM in January 2017.
  6. Final rules arising from the August 2016 NPRM proposal to impose certain Federal Alcohol Administration Act labeling requirements on wines below 7% alcohol by volume are expected in September 2017.
  7. TTB expects to publish an NPRM to permit the labeling of fortified wines in a manner that discloses the addition of grape spirits or brandy to the wine in September 2017.
  8. TTB still promises action to adopt regulations implementing the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.  That NPRM now is scheduled to appear in April 2017.

Issues to Consider When Buying or Selling a Craft Distillery

One of the last things anyone thinks about when embarking on a new, exciting venture (like opening their own distillery), is how things will come to an end. The fun is in the journey, in the craft – and those are rightfully the focal points for entrepreneurs running their own craft distilleries. But, inevitably, the time comes for the next adventure, the next enterprise, the next journey. An entrepreneur may have to recoup the investments they have made in their business or transfer that business to the next generation to carry it forward. No matter the driving force, there comes a time in the life cycle of every business that requires an entrepreneur to consider a sale or some other form of transaction.

This article, originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Artisan Spirit, addresses several issues that can arise when buying or selling a craft distillery.

TTB Publishes Final Rule to Streamline Importation and Exportation Procedures

On December 22, 2016, TTB published a Final Rule implementing the streamlined importation and exportation procedures established by the International Trade Data System (ITDS). See 91 Fed. Reg. 94186 (Dec. 22, 1016). ITDS is an interagency program to establish a “singe window” that importers and exporters can use to submit all data required by Federal agencies in order to clear imports or exports. Under the new system, importers and exporters will need to file only with the “Automated Broker Interface,” a system run and administered by Customs & Border Protection (CBP). The CBP system then makes that data available to every other federal agency, including TTB, which requires it. In short, importers and exporters of alcohol beverages can fulfill all their filing requirements electronically, through a single system.

A link to TTB’s Final Rule is found here.

Texas Court of Appeals Hands Down Instructive Administrative Law Opinion

A recent Texas Court of Appeals decision, EATX Coffee, LLC v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, provides an important reminder of how principles of administrative law may check the current trend towards “regulation by Internet.” Ct. of App of Texas, 4th Dist., No. 04-16-00213-CV (Dec. 7, 2016). Like TTB and many other state alcohol beverage authorities, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) periodically publishes “Question and Answer” (Q&A) documents purporting to interpret the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code.

The EATX opinion arose from a challenge of two particular Q&A’s that, in effect, banned the filling of “crowlers” by Texas beer and wine retailers. A crowler is an aluminum can that a retailer can fill with beer and seal for consumers to take away from the retail premises. While TABC has declared that retailers may fill and sell “growlers” of beer (large bottles filled and sealed by retailers), the TABC’s Q&A’s declared the filling of crowlers to constitute manufacturing – an activity that a retailer cannot engage in without a manufacturing license. (And, of course, under state tied house laws a retailer generally cannot lawfully obtain a manufacturing license).

EATX, having invested in crowler equipment and facing disciplinary action over its filling and sale of crowlers, filed a lawsuit against the TABC seeking a declaration that TABC’s Q&A’s were wrong because the filling of a crowler does not constitute manufacturing. EATX also sought an injunction against enforcement. In response, TABC asserted that the Q&A’s were not a “rule” and therefore the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear a challenge to the Q&A’s, and also asserted that EATX failed to exhaust the administrative remedies it could raise in defense of a TABC disciplinary action against EATX’s retail license.

The Texas Court of Appeals, 4th District, reversed. Reviewing the Q&A’s, the Court of Appeals concluded that: (1) they are of general applicably as they purport to apply to all retail permit holders; (2) they interpret the law and do not simply re-state it; (3) they do not affect only TABC’s internal management or organization. As such, the Q&A’s constitutes a “rule” within the meaning of Texas’ Administrative Procedures Act and the trial court had jurisdiction to hear the case and grant relief. Turning to exhaustion, the Court of Appeals found no authority for the proposition that a litigant aggrieved by the promulgation of a rule must instead wait and raise its arguments in an action brought to cancel, suspend or refuse to renew its license. In short, EATX can have its day in court.

Given the declining use of notice-and-comment rulemaking by TTB and most state alcohol regulatory agencies, the use of Q&A’s, “FAQs,” “advisory bulletins,” “industry memoranda,” and similar informal policy documents has been rising for decades. While such expedients may help move policy forward in a quicker, less resource-intensive (for the agency) manner, the EATX opinion stands as a useful reminder to regulators that this approach has limits.

Exporting Craft Beer to Europe

Until recently, few would have predicted that US craft beers would find their way into European markets, yet today they are successfully meeting European tastes. Craft beers are increasingly able to compete with other products in Europe, such as wine, and there is increasing market demand in Europe for innovative, rare and exotic beers.

US brewers looking to sell their products in Europe cannot, however, simply apply their US commercial strategies, but should instead adapt distribution models that align with their commercial goals in order to take into account the European legal and regulatory context. In addition, although the US legislative framework has a lot in common with that of the European Economic Area, each EU member state has its own regulatory and distribution peculiarities.

Read the full article, originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of The New Brewer.

US Supreme Court Asked to Clarify the Interaction Between the 21st Amendment and the Commerce Clause

The Texas Package Stores Association has asked the US Supreme Court (via a “Petition of Certiorari”) to hear a case that could clarify the interaction between the 21st Amendment and the non-discrimination between states principle of the “dormant” Commerce Clause.

The case arose in Texas, where the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ultimately held that the Supreme Court’s Granholm v. Heald (2005) decision did not limit the reach of the Commerce Clause in alcohol cases to situations where a state discriminates against producers or products. Decisions by two other federal Court of Appeal’s Circuits (the Second and the Eight) have expressly limited Granholm’s reach to discrimination against producers and products. Thus, the Texas Package Stores Association would like the Supreme Court to reverse the Fifth Circuit and explicitly limit the non-discrimination principle of Granholm to cases involving alcohol products and producers.

The Supreme Court hears only a small fraction of the cases brought before it on a Petition of Certiorari, so the chances that the Supreme Court ultimately reviews the Fifth Circuit’s decision remain low. Nevertheless, the existence of a “split” of opinion between different federal Courts of Appeal increase the chances of Supreme Court review.

Summary Judgment Granted in Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka Case

On September 27, 2016, the Northern District of Florida issued a decision in Pye v. Fifth Generation, Inc., N.D. Fla. No. 4:14cv493-RH/CAS, one of many false advertising class actions brought against the makers of Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka.

Although Tito’s has lost a number of decisions on motions to dismiss and summary judgment motions in other jurisdictions, Pye delivers a win. Having already dismissed claims related to the generic “handmade” claim, the recent Pye decision grants summary judgment on the final challenged claim – that Tito’s is made in “an old fashioned pot still.” According to the court, any pot still can be described as “old fashioned” when compared to a column still, and no reasonable consumer could read the claim to represent that all Tito’s comes from the same still.

Two New TTB Rulings Issued on General Use Formulas

On September 29, the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) issued two new Rulings announcing the creation “general use formulas” for certain distilled spirits and agricultural wines. These general use formulas permit the production or importation of these products without the need to first obtain an approved formula (for domestic products) or a pre-import approval (PIA – for imported products) from TTB.

TTB Ruling 2016-2 exempts from the regulations’ formula and PIA requirements most “agricultural wines,” a category that generally encompasses wines fermented from materials other than fruit. Most notably, honey wine (mead) is now exempt from the requirement to file for a formula or a PIA prior to applying for label approval and/or introducing the product into commerce.

TTB Ruling 2016-3 exempts certain categories of distilled spirits from formula and PIA requirements. For certain categories of spirits made with less than 2.5 percent “harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials,” certain specific materials are now authorized without the need to obtain formula or PIA approval. The categories and materials are:

  1. Vodka made with sugar (up to 2g per liter) and/or citric acid (up to 1 g per liter);
  2. Rum made with sugar, brown sugar, molasses and/or caramel;
  3. Certain types of whiskies made with sugar, caramel and/or wine; and
  4. Certain types of brandy made with sugar, caramel, fruit from the same fruit used to make the brandy and/or wine fermented from the same fruit.

These changes represent a modest but helpful attempt to reduce the number of formula and PIA submissions filed by the industry.

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