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The Expanding Landscape of Alcohol Delivery Services

Following consumer trends and fueled by the pandemic and related loosening of restrictions on in-state retailer alcohol delivery regulations, the marketplace for alcohol delivery services has expanded exponentially over the last several years and shows no signs of slowing down. Industry forecasts predict double-digit growth year-over-year until at least 2025 for alcohol-focused e-commerce platforms. However, like anything in the alcohol beverage space, various avenues of penetration for new or existing companies come with certain restrictions that need to be balanced against opportunities for delivering customer convenience through alcohol delivery services.

Available Models

As alcohol delivery has grown and expanded in nearly every US state, numerous delivery models have developed to bring alcohol to a consumer’s doorstep. Of the various models, three have emerged as the most dominant go-to-market approaches to service this new industry sector.

The first are purely e-commerce platforms that connect consumers directly with a wide variety of licensed alcohol retailers but are themselves unlicensed (such as Drizly). The second are unlicensed white-labeled alcohol delivery services which appear as a branded website but integrate with a network of licensed retailers (like Thirstie). And the third are delivery platforms that themselves hold alcohol licenses (such as Gopuff).

Regulatory Opportunities and Impediments

While each of these models presents growth opportunities to service consumers’ desires to receive alcohol at their doorsteps, they also come with a host of restrictions that entities—and any investors in these companies—need to understand. Chief among these considerations are:

  • “Sale of Alcohol”: If the alcohol delivery service is itself unlicensed, the “sale” of alcohol must be between the consumer and the ultimate retail license holder. This means that the service cannot itself first receive the funds for the sale, take its fee and then pass the monies forward to the license holder. In some states, the provider may, however, be able to direct funds in the first instance to an escrow account or other independent account if the licensee retains a degree of control over the account. The licensed retailer should also always maintain control over the “sale” of alcohol, including setting pricing and accepting or rejecting orders.
  • Fee Structure: While state regulators allow for platforms to charge for their delivery and hard costs related to their services, how that fee is derived can be of particular significance if it is or can be correlated with alcohol sales. This restriction is premised on the fact that only a licensed entity should receive the benefit or privilege of the sale of alcohol. Accordingly, certain states like New York have suggested that if the fee structure is not a “flat fee” for services, receiving more than 10% of the revenue from a retailer as part of the sale of alcohol renders the platform a “Co-Licensee” and subject to the state’s authority and licensee vetting process.
  • Supplier Advertising: The ability of alcohol suppliers to pay to advertise on alcohol delivery platforms is of particular focus to alcohol state regulators. First, if the platform is itself unlicensed, the [...]

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Ruling Permits On-Premises Beer and Wine Licenses for New York Movie Theaters

On January 26, 2022, the New York State Liquor Authority issued a Declaratory Ruling regarding the eligibility of New York movie theaters to apply for and obtain on-premises retail licenses for beer and wine service. This is a value-add for theaters, and it allows businesses to provide a new amenity to customers and increase their revenues. The Authority determined that theaters would be eligible for these licenses provided the following:

  • They can establish the theater will prepare and serve food;
  • The primary source of revenue for the theater will be from the ticket sales and/or snacks; and
  • The revenue from the sales of alcoholic beverages (beer and wine only) will be incidental to revenues from tickets and food offerings.

For questions about this ruling, retail licenses in New York or other alcoholic beverage licensing and compliance matters, please contact Adena Santiago or McDermott’s alcohol regulatory and distribution team.




Treasury Responds to Biden Administration Executive Order with Report, Recommendations to Increase Alcohol Industry Competition

On February 9, 2022, the US Treasury Department (Treasury) released a report with recommendations for how the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) can help drive competition in the beer, wine and spirits markets by stepping up conduct enforcement, adopting creative and nuanced theories of harm in merger reviews and implementing new regulations to decrease the burden on smaller industry participants.

TREASURY REPORT SUMMARY

  • Treasury released a report entitled “Competition in the Markets for Beer, Wine, and Spirits” in response to President Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order 14036 that assesses the current market structure and conditions of competition, including an assessment of threats to competition and barriers to entry.
  • Treasury’s report is based, in part, on hundreds of comments received from industry participants and paints a detailed picture of the current landscape for alcohol beverage distribution and sale across the United States.
  • The report focuses on how changes could benefit smaller participants in the beer, wine and spirits industry. Given that the stated goal of Executive Order 14036 was, in part, “to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, increase competition, and deliver concrete benefits to America’s consumers, workers, and small businesses,” it is not surprising that the report is focused on analyzing how a shift in enforcement priorities may be able to help eliminate impediments that make it difficult for smaller producers, distributors and retailers to compete with the larger players in the industry. Treasury specifically recommends that TTB cease bringing cases against “smaller industry members whose conduct does not have obvious effects on competition” (i.e., the investigation several years ago against small wineries for ‘consignment sales’).
  • Treasury makes recommendation on enforcement priorities for FTC, DOJ and TTB. To address the market concentration concerns that the report describes, Treasury makes recommendations regarding how the TTB, FTC and DOJ should focus investigations and enforcement of mergers and conduct in each of the three tiers of the beer, wine and spirits markets: producers, distributors and retailers.
  • Many of the recommendations are likely to be pursued given that the Attorney General and FTC Chair were consulted. The report and its recommendations should be considered carefully as a clear indication of the kinds of issues that FTC and DOJ are likely to focus their investigations on in beer, wine and spirits because the report was developed “in consultation with the Attorney General [DOJ] and the Chair of the FTC.”

TREASURY’S KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

  • While there are myriad competition-focused suggestions in the report, we think the areas that are most likely to receive increased focus from FTC, DOJ and TTB are the following:
    • Anticompetitive Conduct: Treasury noted that FTC, DOJ and TTB have generally not brought any conduct cases on many theories of harm for which myriad complaints were received. Treasury suggests that TTB should act on these [...]

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Second Prop 65 Amendment Effective April 1, 2021: New Warnings Required

The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65 (Prop 65), was enacted as a ballot initiative and requires businesses to inform Californians about exposures to chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. The regulation prohibits knowing or intentional exposure of any individual to a “chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving clear and reasonable warning to such individual.” (See: 27 CCR § 25249.6.)

The state maintains and updates a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, with alcoholic beverages being added to the list April 29, 2011, and requiring suppliers to comply with Prop 65’s “clear and reasonable warning” mandate. (Click here for more information.) This includes, without limitation, beer, malt beverages, wine and distilled spirits. (See: 27 CCR § 25607.4(a).) Generally speaking, for alcoholic beverages, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer or its distributors to ensure proper compliance with Prop 65. (See: 27 CCR § 25600.2(a).) Further, any consequences for failure to comply with Prop 65 typically rests with the manufacturer or its distributor, provided that the retailer has not frustrated the manufacturer’s reasonable efforts to properly display the warning.

The warning provided must read: “WARNING Drinking distilled spirits, beer, coolers, wine and other alcoholic beverages may increase cancer risk, and, during pregnancy, can cause birth defects. For more information go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/alcohol.” (Id. at § 25607.4(a)(1)-(2).) To comply with Section 25607.3, among other specific requirements, the warning must be made at either point of sale (for off-premises consumption) or on a menu or list identifying the alcoholic beverages sold on-premises. (See: 27 CCR § 25607.4.) Note, however, that a supplier who is a party to a “court-ordered settlement or final judgment, establishing a warning method or content is deemed to be providing a “clear and reasonable” warning for that exposure if the warning complies with the order or judgment,” even if the requirements set forth in the order or judgment differ from the specific requirements set forth in the regulations. (See: 27 CCR § 25600(e).)

Prop 65 is enforced by the California attorney general, any district attorney or city attorney for cities whose population exceeds 750,000 and/or any private individual or group acting in the public interest. (See: 27 CCR § 25249.7.) Penalties for violating Prop 65 can be as high as $2,500 per day. (Id.) The fine is paid to the party that brought the litigation, including individuals or groups acting in the public interest, which creates a powerful incentive for private parties to enforce Prop 65. (Id.)

Prop 65 has undergone multiple amendments, two of which are in direct response to the ever-growing e-commerce market for alcoholic beverages. The first amendment, effective August 30, 2018, required the Prop 65 warning language be displayed on websites and on or in packages containing direct-to-consumer orders sent to California addresses. (Click here for [...]

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Importing and Exporting Beer

Importing and exporting beer or other alcohol beverages involves multiple levels of government regulation and taxation. Some regulations, taxes, and reporting requirements mirror your existing compliance obligations as a brewery. Other obligations are unique and include government agencies that are not involved in regulating domestic producers, such as US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Commerce Department.

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TTB Label Approval System Survives First Amendment Challenge from DC Brewery

I. Factual Background

During the 34-day government shutdown occurring between December 2018 and January 2019, producers and importers of beer, wine and distilled spirits needing label approval to bring new products to market were forced to wait until the shutdown was resolved, when TTB could begin again to process COLA applications. The difficulties presented by this situation included the prospect of needing to destroy valuable, perishable inventory.

Unable to obtain a COLA due to the shutdown, Atlas Brew Works (Atlas) filed suit in January in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging the constitutionality of the COLA system. Atlas alleged that the requirement to obtain label approval violates the First Amendment, since, in the event of a government shutdown, the COLA requirement amounted to a prior restraint on protected speech. As the court explained in its opinion, Atlas’s argument boiled down to the claim that “a law that prohibits speech without regulatory approval becomes an outright ban on speech when the approval process is shuttered.” Shortly after the case was filed, the shutdown ended and Atlas received its COLA. The government asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that it was now moot. After giving the parties several months in which to brief the issue, the court ruled in favor of the government’s motion, finding Atlas’s case moot. (more…)




24th Annual Wine, Beer & Spirits Law Conference

On September 16–17, CLE International will host the 24rd Annual Wine, Beer & Spirits Law Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. Those attending will include the alcohol beverage industry’s leading practitioners, including in-house counsel for producers, distributors and retailers, as well as industry lawyers and state administrators. Conference topics include:

  • Updates on TTB developments and trends
  • An overview of recent developments in alcohol trade practice and trademark law
  • The significance of regulatory compliance, and the state of data security and ownership
  • Updates on the cannabis industry, including the latest legalization efforts and how it could affect the alcohol beverage industry

McDermott partner Marc Sorini serves as co-chair for the event and will also present. Other McDermott presenters will be Michael Kimberly and Anthony DeMaio.

Click here for the full agenda and registration information.




Mississippi Supreme Court Ruling Reinstates Claims Against Anheuser-Busch, Mitchell Distributing

I. Introduction

On May 23, the Mississippi Supreme Court published its opinion in the case of Rex Distributing Company v. Anheuser-Busch, LLC, et al. The ruling partially reverses the trial court’s decision to dismiss all of Rex’s claims against Anheuser-Busch and rival distributor Mitchell Distributing Company (Mitchell). The ruling will allow Rex Distributing Company (Rex) to proceed with its lawsuit alleging that Anheuser-Busch violated Mississippi’s Beer Industry Fair Dealing Act (BIFDA) by refusing to approve Rex’s attempt to sell its distribution rights to Anheuser-Busch products. In addition, the ruling will allow Rex to proceed with a claim against Mitchell for tortious interference and civil conspiracy.

The ruling clarifies Mississippi beer franchise law by limiting the rights of beer suppliers in the context of distributor transfers, effectively rendering Anheuser-Busch’s “match and redirect” contractual provisions unenforceable under Mississippi’s Beer Industry Fair Dealing Act (BIFDA). (more…)




Customs and Border Protection Interim Regulations for Refunds of Excise Taxes on Imported Beer, Wine and Spirits

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expects to publish tomorrow Interim Regulations authorizing the refund of beer, wine, and spirits excise taxes in connection with the 2017 tax reform act’s reduced rates and credits. The Interim Regulations specify:

  1. Claims must be filed with the National Revenue Center of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
  2. Claims must be filed on TTB Form 5620.8.
  3. A separate claim is required for entries made at each US port or internal revenue region.

The interim regulations will be effective on the date of publication (expected to be August 16, 2018).

CBP also initiated a 60-day comment period that will provide interested parties with opportunities to raise questions or identify issues that are not addressed in the interim regulations.

Please let us know if you have any questions about this development.




TTB Issues Further Alcohol Excise Tax Guidance

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.




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