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Marc E. Sorini concentrates on issues facing the alcohol beverage industry, with a particular focus on the supplier tier and non-beverage alcohol users. He heads the Firm's Alcohol Regulatory & Distribution Group and is recognized as one of the leading lawyers in his field. Read Marc Sorini's full bio.

On February 21, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit published its opinion in Byrd v. Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, No. 17-5552. The decision, which includes a partial dissent, affirms a Middle District of Tennessee decision finding that the “durational-residency” (residency) requirements imposed by Tennessee law for alcohol beverage retail licensees are unconstitutional under the “dormant” Commerce Clause.

Tennessee law requires an applicant for a retail license to have been a resident of Tennessee for at least the two-year period immediately preceding the submission of the license application. For corporate license applicants, the two-year requirement applies to any officer, director or stockholder of the corporation. Moreover, to renew such a license the law requires Tennessee residency for at least ten consecutive years.

Two prospective retail applicants that did not meet the two-year residency requirement, notably including the Tennessee affiliate of Total Wine Spirits & Beer, sought licenses. Expecting litigation, the Tennessee Attorney General filed a declaratory judgement action in state court seeking to have the residency requirements declared constitutional. The action was removed to federal court, and the Middle District of Tennessee found the requirements unconstitutional.

Continue Reading Durational-Residency Requirements for Alcohol Beverage Retail Licensees Held Unconstitutional

On Friday, March 2, 2018, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued its next round of guidance concerning the alcohol excise tax provisions of the recently enacted tax law (Tax Act). TTB has not yet addressed some of the biggest ambiguities contained in the Tax Act, such as (i) how foreign producers can assign excise tax credits to US importers and (ii) how the “Single Taxpayer Rule” will work. Nevertheless, TTB continues to make incremental progress in interpreting the Tax Act.

The March 2 guidance features the following:

  1. A new TTB Industry Circular, No. 2018-1 (March 2, 2018), announces the creation of a temporary “alternate procedure” (aka, variance) allowing wine producers to tax determine and tax pay wine of the winery’s own production stored untaxpaid at another bonded wine cellar as if the wine were removed from the producing winery’s bonded premises. Prior law allowed wineries eligible for tax credits under the small winery tax provisions to transfer their credits to another bonded winery. So, for example, an eligible small winery could transfer bulk wine in bond to a larger bonded winery for bottling without losing the tax credits. The new tax law does not contain a similar transfer provision, leading to the prospect of small wineries losing their tax credits because they transferred the wine to a bonded winery that already used up its tax credits available under the Tax Act. The alternate procedure permits a winery to tax pay the wine as if it were removed from the producing winery’s premises, allowing it to take the tax credit. The temporary alternate procedure authorized by Industry Circular 2018-1 expires on June 30, 2018.
  2. Beer, wine and spirits removed from a brewery, winery or distillery but received in bond from elsewhere can benefit from the Tax Act’s reduced rates and/or tax credits only if the taxpaying brewery, winery or distillery “produced,” “distilled” and/or “processed” the beer, wine or spirits in question. Exactly what processing qualifies the taxpaying facility for the reduced rate or tax credits will depend on specific facts and the commodity at issue.
  3. TTB further qualifies the produced/distilled/processed requirement by indicating that any production process should be made “in good faith in the ordinary course of production” and not done for purposes of obtaining a tax advantage.

Please let us know if you have any questions about these developments.

On February 5, 2018, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued an opinion in one of the many false advertising class actions brought against the industry in the past five years.

Penrose v. Buffalo Trace Distillery, E.D. Mo. 4:17-cv-00294-HEA, involves the labeling of Old Charter bourbon. For years, Old Charter sold an 8-year-old version and a 12-year-old version, with their labels very prominently displaying “8” and “12” (respectively) in several places. According to the complaint, in January 2014 Old Charter “8” was re-formulated to use less-aged bourbon, described by the court as “non-age stated” or “NAS” bourbon. The labels, however, continue to prominently display the number “8” in the same manner as the prior label. In addition, while the label previously stated “aged 8 years,” the NAS bourbon’s label states “gently matured for eight seasons.” The court’s opinion catalogues a number of alleged complaints by consumers that they were deceived into purchasing the NAS product on the mistaken belief that the bourbon was still aged for eight years. Significantly, the complaint alleges that the price for Old Charter “8” remained the same after the reformulation. Continue Reading District Court Issues Opinion in Old Charter Bourbon False Advertising Class Action

Earlier this week the Trump Administration presented its Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Proposal. While many portions of a president’s proposed budget do not get enacted, such proposals provide insight into the thinking of the administration.

With respect to the alcohol beverage industry, the budget proposal would transfer to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau the remaining (criminal) authority the old Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) has over alcohol beverages, stating:

ATF would transfer the entirety of its alcohol and tobacco regulatory and enforcement responsibilities to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in the Department of the Treasury. This transfer would enable the ATF to hone its focus on activities that protect U.S. communities from violent criminals and criminal organizations, while consolidating duplicative alcohol and tobacco enforcement mechanisms within the TTB.

We suspect TTB would welcome an expansion of its authority to include criminal matters involving alcohol (e.g., diversion a/k/a “bootlegging”).

Over the past few years, news headlines have been filled with reports of large data security breaches impacting major brand names and affecting millions of people. It seems like with each new day comes a new breach. The reports are alarming for businesses and consumers alike.

No industry is immune from the soaring increase in data security breaches—not even craft brewing. Many small businesses owners erroneously believe they are too small to attract a hacker or fall victim to a breach. Scotty’s Brewhouse, the Indiana-based brewery and restaurant chain, experienced a data breach in January 2017 when an employee emailed 4,000 employee W-2 tax forms to an unknown scammer posing as the brewery’s CEO. Continue Reading.

Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of The New Brewer. 

On January 17, 2018, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued a decision in yet another putative class action alleging that a beer brand’s labeling and marketing was false and deceptive. In this case, the defendant is The 21st Amendment Brewery Café (21st Amendment), a successful California-based craft brewery. See Peacock v. The 21st Amendment Brewery Café, LLC, N.D. Cal. No. 17-cv-01918-JST (Jan. 17, 2018). Continue Reading District Court Denies Motion to Dismiss Deception Claims against Brewer

On December 15, 2017, a Mississippi trial court issued a series of orders dismissing a substantial number of the claims brought in Rex Distributing Company v. Anheuser-Busch et al., 2nd Cir. Court No. 24C11:17-cv-00033 (Harrison Circuit Court – Gulfport).

In 2016, Mississippi beer distributor Rex Distributing (Rex) agreed to sell its business to Adams Beverage (Adams) for $50.5 million. Anheuser-Busch (A-B)—by far Rex’s largest supplier—then exercised the “match and redirect” right contained in the distribution agreement between A-B and Rex, directing Rex to sell its business to Mitchell Distributing (Mitchell) on the same terms and conditions as the proposed Rex-Adams transaction. D.G. Yuengling and Son (Yuengling) refused to allow the sale of its brand distribution rights in Rex’s territory to Mitchell, citing Mitchell’s previous refusal to carry Yuengling beer when Yuengling first entered the state. Rex consummated the sale to Mitchell for $3.1 million less than the original sale price due to Yuengling’s refusal to go along. Rex then brought suit against A-B, Yuengling, and several Mitchell entities, and Yuengling filed cross-claims against A-B and Mitchell. Continue Reading Mississippi Court Dismisses Multiple Claims in Distributor Termination Case

Last week in its regular newsletter, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced updates to the Fall edition of the semi-annual Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions (Regulatory Agenda). Like other federal agencies, TTB uses the Regulatory Agenda to report on its current rulemaking projects.

In the updated agenda, a few new items have been added, and many expected publication dates of Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRMs), Advanced Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRMs) and Final Rules have changed. As always, readers should recognize that TTB rulemaking moves very slowly, and the Agency often does not meet the aspirational dates published in the Regulatory Agenda. Continue Reading TTB Updates to the Semi-Annual Regulatory Agenda

In the past three years, TTB has approved an increasing number of certificate of label approvals (“COLA”) for hemp-flavored vodka, from Mill Six’s hemp, white tea and ginger flavored vodka to Olde Imperial Mystic’s hemp infused vodka. Distillers have designed labels with green smoke-like images and psychedelic sixties-style lettering to hint at their cultural connection to marijuana. As more states have legalized recreational cannabis, distillers have been thinking more ambitiously about combining their distilling business with one or more aspects of the emerging marijuana business.

Read the full article.

Originally published in Artisan Spirit: Winter 2017.