On September 18, 2018, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued TTB Industry Guidance 2018-10, a webpage consisting of questions and answers related to formulas. According to TTB, this new guidance “essentially replaces” Industry Circular 2007-4, which provided the framework for pre-COLA product evaluations. TTB has removed Industry Circular 2007-4 from its website.

The release of Industry Guidance 2018-10 comes with troubling implications. TTB has essentially revoked an Industry Circular signed by TTB Administrator John Manfreda and replaced it with a series Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) with no clear authorship or authority. Furthermore, they have deleted Industry Circular 2007-4, preventing industry members from reviewing how these FAQs differ or alter the previous method for determining when formulas are required. Indeed, TTB seems to be significantly expanding the types of products that require formula approval. TTB notes in the new FAQs that “there may be circumstances when we will require a formula . . . even though the product does not generally require a formula.” See Industry Guidance 2018-10, FAB4.

TTB has recently required formulas for products, such as particular varieties of mezcal and spirits aged in previously used cooperage, where formulas were not previously required. It appears where no regulatory restrictions on aging (e.g., length of time or type of barrel) exists for a particular type/class of distilled spirits, TTB will more than likely request a formula approval prior to reviewing a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) application. Some products may not require a formula if the label text only specifies the type of barrel used for aging, i.e., “Aged in used bourbon barrels.” But if the label mentions any attribute the aging provides to the liquid (e.g., “notes of sweet corn” or “hints of charred wood”) then TTB will likely require a formula.

Although TTB previously made strides in increasing speeds in which COLAs and formulas were reviewed, these new requirements will increase the compliance workload and approval timelines for TTB as well as alcohol beverage industry members. In addition to the challenges created by increasing the number of products requiring formulas, more questions are likely to arise under the anonymous FAQs, which replaced the longstanding protocols in Industry Circular 2007-4.

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.

Last week, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) published a TTB Procedure governing the transfer in bond of beer between breweries of different ownership. See TTB Procedure 2018-1 (July 17, 2018). In bond transfers between breweries of different ownership were authorized by the 2017 tax reform act and like many provisions of that act, the transfer provision is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2019.

Some highlights:

  1. The beer transfers can include both packaged and bulk beer.
  2. Transferred beer can be re-consigned while in transit or returned to the shipping brewery.
  3. Most recordkeeping and recording rules are the same as the current regulations governing transfers between breweries of the same ownership.
  4. Because the 2017 tax reform act’s lower tax rates apply to beer “produced” by the removing brewery, beer transferred in bulk does not benefit from the lower rates if the receiving brewer makes no changes or only de minimis changes to the transferred beer.
  5. For excise tax purposes, a beer is “produced” by a brewer if it is “brewed by fermentation or produced by the addition of water or other liquids during any state of production.” Blending alone does not qualify as “production.”
  6. Packaged beer that was transferred does not receive any lower rate of tax and will be taxed at the $18/barrel rate upon removal.
  7. Absent evidence of theft or diversion, in-transit losses of up to 2 percent are permitted without the need to file a report or a claim with TTB.
  8. Bulk containers used to transfer beer between breweries are subject to certain marking requirements.

The latest development in a lengthy legal challenge to advertising restrictions in Missouri’s tied house laws and regulations raises practical economic issues for the alcohol beverage industry and significant legal and policy issues for legislators and regulators at all levels of government. On June 28, Judge Douglas Harpool of the US District Court for the Western District of Missouri filed a decision in Missouri Broadcasters Association vs. Dorothy Taylor. The Missouri Broadcasters Association (MBA) is a trade association representing media outlets. Two licensed Missouri retailers were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Ms. Dorothy Taylor is the Supervisor of the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (DATC).

The basic issue in the case is whether several Missouri alcohol beverage advertising restrictions violate the plaintiffs’ commercial speech rights protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The June District Court decision follows a bench trial held in February 2018. The trial occurred as the result of prior legal proceedings culminating in a 2017 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which found that the MBA’s amended complaint “plausibly demonstrates that the challenged provisions [of Missouri’s tied house law] do not directly advance the government’s asserted substantial interest, are more extensive than necessary and unconstitutionally compel speech and association.”

Perhaps the most important Missouri law challenged in this litigation is an exception in the tied house laws that authorizes a manufacturer to pay for advertising that lists “two or more affiliated retail businesses selling its products” subject to four conditions:

(a) The advertisement shall not contain the retail price of the product;

(b) The listing of the retail businesses shall be the only reference to such retail businesses in the advertisement;

(c) The listing of the retail businesses shall be relatively inconspicuous in relation to the advertisement as a whole; and

(d) The advertisement shall not refer only to one retail business or only to a retail business controlled directly or indirectly by the same retail business.

This language may be familiar to many practitioners and regulators as a nearly identical provision appears in the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) tied house regulations. Laws and regulations of several states include similar express exceptions and TTB regulations are incorporated by reference in the trade practices regulations of other states. Innumerable TTB and state tied house laws and regulations restrict advertising in similar ways and may be invalidated if the analysis in Missouri Broadcasters is applied by other courts and ultimately upheld by federal appellate courts.

Other Missouri laws and regulations that were successfully challenged by MBA in the trial court prohibit (a) media advertising of price discounts, (b) beer and wine coupons, (c) outdoor advertising of discounts by retailers and (d) below cost advertising.

Unlike many cases based solely on theoretical legal arguments and the text of laws and regulations, the trial in the Missouri case resulted in a wide-ranging inquiry that included expert witnesses on advertising and the level of effort invested by the Missouri DATC in enforcing the challenged laws and regulations. The court’s decision suggests that the state struggled to provide any credible evidence that the challenged laws “directly reduce[] overconsumption of alcohol and underage drinking.”

The court found that the plaintiffs’ expert testimony provided substantial evidence “that there is in fact no demonstrative relationship between media advertising of alcohol and overall consumption rates of underage drinking…The State failed to present any evidence contradicting the testimony, empirical studies, and statistical analysis relied on by the Plaintiffs’ expert.”

The court agreed with the plaintiffs and cited language from the 8th Circuit decision that “the multiple inconsistencies within the regulations poke obvious holes in any potential advancement” of the state’s interest, “to the point the regulations do not advance the interest at all.” This finding is a threat to dozens of federal and state alcohol beverage laws that are riddled with exceptions that allow alcohol beverage advertising in one context and expressly prohibit the same advertising in another context (e.g., prohibiting exterior signs and permitting indoor signs).

Because the challenged Missouri laws restrict commercial speech rights protected by the First Amendment, the court also awarded legal fees to MBA and the retailer plaintiffs.

Advertising can be removed from the “marble cake” of state and federal tied house restrictions without dire consequences for regulators. If the reasoning in Missouri Broadcasters survives, the most significant effects will occur in intra-industry negotiations where parties will determine how advertising costs and activities are apportioned across the three-tier system.

Before proclaiming the death of the three-tier system, hundreds of state licensing and tied house laws have nothing to do with advertising. Prohibitions on ownership interests in more than one tier of the alcohol beverage industry are not affected by the recent decision along with substantial restrictions on industry trade practices other than advertising.

Finally, the reasoning in Missouri Broadcasters may have to survive another appeal and must be adopted by other courts to broadly affect house restrictions on advertising throughout the United States. Perhaps a state (or more likely a state with support from interested industry members) will develop credible evidence to support similar laws in other jurisdictions. For example, California aggressively defended analogous laws and regulations, which were ultimately upheld last year by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On May 16, 2018, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued Industry Circular 2018-3, allowing proprietors of distilled spirits plants (DSPs), bonded wine cellars (BWCs) and breweries to submit a request for a variance to the typical method for storing tax-determined and non-tax-determined products. Under TTB regulations, a proprietor designates areas of the premises as bonded and non-bonded. With few exceptions, tax-determined products can only be stored on non-bonded areas of the premises and non-tax-determined products can only be stored in bonded areas.

Under Industry Circular 2018-3, proprietors may request a variance to the bonded/non-bonded designations established in existing regulations. This variance would allow an “alternation” of a specific area or multiple areas between a bonded and non-bonded designation. An “alternation” allows two practices (e.g., brewing and winemaking) statutorily prohibited from occurring at the same premise to occur through the creation of a legal fiction. The premise “alternates” between one type of premise to accomplish one task and reverts to another type of premise to accomplish another task. Continue Reading TTB to Allow Proprietors to Request Alternating Premise Variances for Storage of Tax- and Non-Tax-Determined Commodities

On May 17, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued an Industry Circular, No. 2018-1A, clarifying that under the recently-enacted tax reform legislation (Tax Act), wineries may tax determine and tax pay wine they produce and that is stored untaxpaid at another bonded wine cellar or bonded winery as if the wine were removed from the producing winery’s bonded premises.

Among the Tax Act’s many changes to the Internal Revenue Code, the new legislation (which went into effect on January 1, 2018) prescribed new tax credits for wine and suspended (through 2019) the previous tax credit. The Tax Act also suspended the prior law’s transfer provision, which allowed small wineries eligible for tax credits to transfer their credits to another bonded winery. This threatened to leave small wineries transferring their wines to larger bonded wineries without their tax credits. To apply the tax credits to such wines under the Tax Act, the producing winery would need to physically bring the wine back to its premises and remove and tax pay the wine. Continue Reading TTB Announces Extension of Tax Credits for Wines Stored at Bonded Wine Cellars and Bonded Wineries

Changes in Administration and other political shifts can have subtle and, occasionally, not-so-subtle influences in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) policies and priorities. In the article, “TTB in a Deregulatory Mood” published by Artisan Spirit, Marc Sorini explores how the Trump Administration’s desire to reduce regulatory burdens on business has already influenced TTB’s regulatory priorities. Particularly, in the most recent “Unified Agenda,” a bi-annual compilation of federal regulatory initiatives, TTB placed a priority on deregulatory projects, several of which would alter the regulatory environment for the industry. Marc discusses how the change in administration appears to have an effect on TTB’s rulemaking efforts.

Access the full article.

Originally published in Artisan Spirit, Spring 2018.

Today, TTB published additional Tax Act guidance on its website. Three new clarifications address the interaction of the new Tax Act rates/credits with the wine and flavor credits available under 26 U.S.C. § 5010. The clarifications are:

  1. TTB re-confirms that the 5010 credit applies to spirits subject to the Tax Act’s reduced rates, but the 5010 credit cannot reduce the effective rate of tax on any spirit to below zero.
  2. TTB indicates that the effective rate of tax on products receiving 5010 flavor credit will vary, depending on the applicable Tax Act rate applied to the finished product.
  3. The wine base rates, before any reduction through Tax Act credit allowances, are to be used when calculating the wine content credit applied to a spirit under Section 5010.

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.

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”).