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Legal Considerations for Ready-to-Drink Cocktails

The ready-to-drink cocktail or “RTD” category has exploded in recent years, and it’s occupied by more than merely craft distillers familiar with a carefully made cocktail. Brewers, distillers and even vintners have joined in, capitalizing on consumers’ desires for pre-made, no-fuss beverages. The most unexpected development to emerge with RTDs, however, is the legal complexity surrounding these products—something the industry is only beginning to understand.

Many of these legal issues stem from the fact that the legal regulatory landscape in most states has not caught up with the rapidly evolving alcohol industry. That leaves ready-to-drink cocktails, much like hard seltzers, as not having a specific class or type in certain states. Suppliers looking to enter the space have plentiful options when creating a new product, subject to what licenses the manufacturer holds and what those licenses allow them to produce.

Ready-to-drink cocktails can be spirits, malt, sugar, cider or wine-based. The base of the RTD product, nonetheless, is the key federal factor. It is also an important factor in most states when determining how the product will be treated from a legal perspective in the following areas:

  • Licensing needed to manufacture, distribute and sell the product;
  • Applicable franchise law (Do beer franchise laws apply to low-proof spirits?);
  • Available channels of distribution (Can you sell this product in grocery or convenience store?);
  • Excise tax rate charged to the manufacturer (Does state law have a lower excise tax rate for low ABV products?);
  • Labeling and advertising considerations (Is your product a modified traditional product?); and
  • Trade practice considerations/promotions (Do spirits laws apply?).

Industry members dabbling in a sphere that is relatively new to the market, state regulators and legislatures should be mindful of the patchwork of emerging regulations. Like hard seltzer, ready-to-drink cocktails are not a clearly defined category under existing alcohol law. Meanwhile, states are working quickly to legislate in this domain. New Jersey is considering a reduced alcoholic beverage tax rate on low-ABV liquors to align with the beer tax rate (NJ SB 701), Vermont is considering legislation to define “low alcohol spirits beverage” and treat it as a “vinous beverage” (VT HB 590) and the Washington State Senate has a bill pending that would establish a tax on low-proof beverages (WA SB 5049).

From franchise issues to excise tax, the issues discussed here are only a glimpse of the nuanced and complicated legal landscape that governs the distribution of RTDs and alcoholic beverages across all categories. Consulting with competent legal counsel with experience in the industry is crucial to ensuring compliance with applicable federal, state and local regulations.




Craft Beer Mergers and Acquisitions

Over the past several months, 15 notable deals have taken place in the craft beer space, continuing a trend toward consolidation in the industry. While the terms of most transactions remain undisclosed, the deals generally fall into three buckets:

  1. Strategic deals designed to combine leading brands and brewers and leverage distribution capacity;
  2. Targeted asset acquisitions designed primarily to expand brewing capacity; and
  3. Restructuring transactions.

McDermott’s Marc Sorini, Thomas Conaghan and Daniel McGuire walk through notable strategic deals, asset/capacity purchases and restructurings.

Access the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, November/December 2019.




Arbitration Clause in Beer Distribution Agreement Enforced by the Virginia ABC

On May 7, 2019, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (VABC) published a decision confirming the enforceability of arbitration clauses in distribution agreements between brewers and beer distributors under Virginia’s Beer Franchise Act (BFA). In Loveland Distributing Co., Inc. and Premium of Virginia, LLC v. Bell’s Brewery, Inc., the VABC panel ruled unanimously in favor of compelling the parties to resolve their dispute through arbitration, as provided for in the parties’ distribution agreement (the Agreement).

The decision is good news overall for beer and wine suppliers hoping to avoid the cost of litigation before the VABC. Continue reading for details of the dispute and further considerations. (more…)




ABI/SAB Miller Deal: DOJ Clarifies Best Efforts Clause in Proposed Final Judgment

As most members of the alcohol and beverage industry are aware, Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) acquired the global holdings of SABMiller in a more than $100 billion merger in October 2016. The Department of Justice (DOJ) required ABI to divest SABMiller’s United States business, including its ownership interest in MillerCoors. Since November 2016, the parties have engaged in ongoing briefing seeking approval of a Proposed Final Judgment (PFJ) in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

(more…)




2018 Federal Budget Legislation Provides Breweries with Administrative Relief and Acknowledges 21st Amendment

Two sections of Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA) that were dropped from the 2017 federal tax reform law were subsequently added to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, signed into law by President Trump on February 9, 2018.

The new law mandates a temporary (two year) change in tax recordkeeping requirements for domestic breweries to eliminate duplicate reports and accounting obligations for breweries that have pub and sampling areas. The intent of the new law is to allow brewers to keep one set of books covering (a) beer removed from brewery for sale for distribution to retailers and (b) beer sold or provided for sampling to consumers at a brewery. Existing regulations and policies led to unnecessary complexity in accounting for brewers and for auditors from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). While the recordkeeping changes are required for calendar years 2018 and 2019, TTB may be able to make changes in regulations and policies that will provide permanent relief from unnecessary administrative burdens. (more…)




Excise Tax Relief for Breweries, Wineries and Distilleries

This post does not constitute tax advice. It summarizes changes in alcohol beverage excise tax laws to assist industry members in planning to implement the changes. Excise tax calculations and liability must be determined for each taxpayer based on numerous variables.

The new tax law formerly referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, provides a temporary reduction in alcohol beverage excise taxes for US brewers, winemakers, distillers and beverage importers. Temporary tax relief is available for beer, wine and spirits removed from a US manufacturing facility or released from Custom’s custody after January 1, 2018, and prior to December 31, 2019. Several provisions of the new law will require the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to quickly promulgate new regulations. (more…)




Government Affairs Extra | Craft Beer and Marijuana

It’s hard to deny that marijuana has a cultural connection with craft beer, or at least with substantial segments of the craft brewing community. Many craft brewers have signaled to their fans that they know a thing or two about the rituals and lingo of marijuana consumption. But with the legalization of recreational cannabis by several states since 2012, many brewers have been thinking more ambitiously about combining their brewing business with one or more aspects of the emerging marijuana business.

Read “Government Affairs Extra | Craft Beer and Marijuana.”

This article originally appeared in The New Brewer November/December 2017.




“Chairman’s Mark” Includes CBMTRA Provisions to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

America’s brewers, distillers and wineries cannot yet raise a glass to recalibrated federal excise taxes, but they got one step closer to be able to do that on Tuesday.

That is because the provisions of the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA) (S. 236)—including the excise tax changes that would benefit America’s small brewers, distillers and wineries—have been included in Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch’s revised “Chairman’s Mark” to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that is now being considered by the Senate Finance Committee.

The inclusion of the CBMTRA is a very significant positive development for all producers of alcoholic beverages, but particularly for small brewers, distillers and wineries.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) offered an amendment to include the CBMTRA to the Chairman’s “mark” to the underlying bill and Chairman Hatch agreed to that. Co-sponsors of Portman’s amendment included Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Dean Heller (R-NV). (more…)




The Ban on Consignment Sales

Most brewers are at least somewhat familiar with federal and state laws regulating the interrelationships between members of the different industry tiers. The most well-known are the “tied house” laws, which prohibit or severely restrict brewers or beer wholesalers from owning retail establishments (and vice versa), and substantially limit the ability of brewers or beer wholesalers to provide money, free goods, or other “things of value” to retailers.

Until recently, the laws prohibiting consignment sales in the alcohol beverage industry received little attention. But in the past 18 months, the settlement of two federal investigations involving the beer industry’s biggest players has focused new attention on the subject. This article will explain consignment sale laws in an effort to prevent brewers from inadvertently violating them.

Read the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, May/June 2017.




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