Each year, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) purchases hundreds of bottles of distilled spirits. The bottles, which are chosen at random, are then evaluated for compliance with the TTB’s labeling regulations. This annual test is called the Alcohol Beverage Sampling Program (ABSP).
ABSP results were published annually until 2016, giving the industry insight into the biggest compliance problems. The same issues were flagged year after year after year: Labels displaying inaccurate alcohol content, containing unapproved revisions or missing mandatory information. And, although the TTB no longer publishes its findings, they still conduct the survey and it’s unlikely those recurring problems have disappeared in recent years.
Here we’ll look at the most prevalent non-compliance problems the TTB listed in its 2016 report. For each issue, we’ll tell you how to avoid it and point you toward a TTB resource to check out to learn more.
In 2016, 175 distilled spirits bottles were tested. 68 bottles were non-compliant.
50 labels displayed incorrect alcohol content information
You must display your product’s alcohol content in percent by volume on the front of your container, and that declared value must be accurate. Your product is permitted to be under the declared alcohol content value (by up to 0.15% alcohol by volume), but not over.
Beyond the primary issue of ensuring products are labeled properly, getting the alcohol content correct is important because it determines your product’s tax class.
The TTB made a video series to walk you through the various methods they use when testing products. You can use these videos to ensure you proof — and label — your product correctly.
23 labels displayed information that was different from the TTB-approved label
To receive TTB approval for your label, you will need to fill out an Application for Certification / Exemption of Label / Bottle Approval. Once your label is approved, you’ll receive a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). Other than a finite number of “allowable revisions,” the label on your product must match your approved COLA exactly. To make any change not listed as an allowable revision, you will have to go through the approval process again with the updated label.
According 2016 ABSP report, 23 labels “contained changes in information, either mandatory or non-mandatory, which differed from the COLA.”
To see whether a change you want to make is allowed, you can use this interactive tool from the TTB. All you have to do is select your commodity (“distilled spirits”) and the action you want to take (“add,” “delete,” “change” or “reposition”), and they will populate allowable changes (and examples of compliant revisions).
For example, if you wanted to add seasonal graphics to your label, you would just toggle “distilled spirits” and “add” and they give the below example of an allowable revision:
If the revision you’d like to make isn’t listed, then you’ll have to go through the approval process again with the updated design.
4 labels were missing mandatory information
With only four labels missing mandatory information, this obviously isn’t a huge non-compliance issue. But it’s worth directing you to where you can find the list of all the information required on distilled spirits labels — the Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM).
Chapter 1 of the BAM does an excellent job of detailing the labeling rules for distilled spirits. It outlines all 15 elements of mandatory information that must be on your label, as well as where they should be placed on your container.
2 labels had errors in Health Warning Statement
This is two labels too many. All the TTB requires is that distilled spirits labels contain this paragraph (with some specific formatting rules outlined in the BAM):
“GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems”
A few more resources to help with TTB label compliance
To ensure these labeling rules are followed and consumers are adequately protected, the TTB has developed a library of resources meant to educate industry stakeholders on how, exactly, to apply them.
Below are a few more guidance documents to bookmark and reference as you seek TTB approval:
Chapter 4 of the BAM: Class and Type Designation
The labeling rules for distilled spirits vary greatly depending on the class (e.g., “neutral spirits or alcohol”) and type (e.g., “vodka”) of your product. Chapter 4 of the BAM lists the rules governing these class and type designations.
The complete list of allowable revisions to your COLA
Section 5 of the Application for and Certification / Exemption of Label / Bottle Approval gives you the complete list of allowable revisions to approved labels. It also gives greater context as to the circumstances when these revisions can, and cannot, be made.
The anatomy of a compliant label
It’s impossible for the TTB to give templates of compliant labels. But they did create this detailed diagram of a compliant label, explaining why different formatting and design decisions were made.
Need help with your distilled spirits label?
If you have questions about TTB regulations, reach out to us. We have decades of experience working with spirits brands to design and manufacture compliant labels. While TTB compliance is ultimately the responsibility of the distiller, we can help guide you along the way.