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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.




Oregon Issues New Guidance on Hard Seltzer Classification

Recently, Oregon issued clarification pertaining to the classification of hard seltzers in the state. The guidance, as summarized below, impacts the majority of hard seltzers in the market. Classification of hard seltzer has a number of impacts, most notably on excise tax (or “privilege tax”) rates and licensing needed to produce, import, distribute and sell hard seltzers in the state. Specifically, Oregon has signaled that should the state’s guidance result in the reclassification of a supplier’s hard seltzer product, there may be retroactive tax liability imposed. This alert should assist those engaged in the production or sale of hard seltzer in Oregon in determining whether reclassification is necessary and the implications thereof. For specific questions on the implications of this guidance on your business, please do not hesitate to reach out to McDermott Will & Emery.

Classifications of Hard Seltzer
“Hard seltzer” must meet the following to be categorized as a malt beverage in Oregon:

  1. 100% of the alcohol by volume (ABV) is obtained through the fermentation of grain and the ABV is more than 0.5% but not more than 14%; or
  2. At least 98.5% of the ABV is obtained through the fermentation of grain and the ABV is more than 6% but not more than 14%. Once those criteria are met, not more than 1.5% of the ABV may be obtained through other flavoring agents containing alcohol; or
  3. At least 51% of the ABV is obtained by the fermentation of grain and the ABV is more than 0.5% and not more than 6%.

Once the criteria above is met, up to 49% of the ABV may be obtained through other flavoring agents containing alcohol.

Oregon relies on the federal definition of “grain” to mean barley, canola, corn, flaxseed, mixed grain, oats, rye, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower seed, triticale and wheat, and the subsequent definition for each grain. This may exclude hard seltzers deriving alcohol primarily through the fermentation of cane sugar from meeting the malt beverage definition in Oregon. The state may require verification that a product claimed to be a malt beverage for tax purposes is in fact produced through the fermentation of grain via the submission of an ingredients list or documentation describing the manufacturing process.

“Hard seltzer” must meet the following to be categorized as a wine in Oregon:

  1. An alcoholic beverage obtained by the fermentation of vinous or fruit juice, or other fermented beverage fit for beverage purposes, and contains more than 0.5% ABV and does not contain more than 21% ABV.
  2. Wine may contain distilled liquor and other “non-traditional” ingredients, provided that it does not contain more than 21% ABV.
  3. “Wine” does not include malt beverage, cider or distilled liquor.

“Hard seltzer” must meet the following to be categorized as a cider in Oregon:

  1. An alcoholic beverage obtained by the fermentation of the juice of apples or pears; contains more than 0.5% ABV but does not contain more than 8.5% ABV.
  2. The juice is not required [...]

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FDA Releases Draft Guidance on Public Warnings and Notifications of Recalls

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a draft guidance on the agency’s voluntary recall process and announced the agency’s intention to notify the public faster when a product is recalled. The guidance aims to assist and provide recommendations to industry and FDA staff regarding the use, content and circumstances for issuance of public warnings and public notifications for firm‑initiated or FDA‑requested recalls. In addition, the guidance discusses what information to include in a public warning, as well as the parties responsible for issuing it. Notably, the draft guidance does not specifically address recalls of alcohol beverage products regulated by the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act or the primary role of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in seeking and monitoring recalls of such beverages. Comments on the draft guidance are due by March 20, 2018. (more…)




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