No labels: The federal shutdown and selling booze.

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John J. Manfreda, TTB administrator since 2005

As I write this, the US federal government has been partially shut down for about twenty days, due to an impasse over President Trump’s desire to build a wall on the southern border.

One of the agencies affected by the shutdown is the Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB), the division of the Department of the Treasury charged with regulating and taxing alcohol, tobacco and firearms. The TTB was created in 2003 when the old bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was split in two. The law enforcement functions of the agency were moved to the Department of Justice and retained the ATF name. The tax and regulation functions stayed within Treasury and were re-christened the TTB.

If you’re interested in my personal take on the politics of the shutdown check my Twitter feed and likes. You should be able to piece together my politics from those.

More interesting than my dumb opinions is how the federal shutdown, particularly the closure of the TTB, is affecting beverage producers in Michigan and elsewhere. So I reached out to some friends of the blog to ask how the shutdown has impacted their business. Here’s what they said:

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Sean O’Keefe

At this point our biggest concern (besides the unraveling of our civil society) is getting new labels approved by the feds. I’m glad that we don’t have too many new wines that we need to get to market soon.

-Sean O’Keefe, Winemaker, Mari Vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan

I just found out about [the shutdown] yesterday (January 8, 2019). Government shut down, tax collecting part of the TTB not shut down so I still have to do my 5120.17 annual report. So if it does affect me, I am unaware of how.
Nathaniel Rose, owner & winemaker, Nathaniel Rose Wines, Suttons Bay, Michigan (via text).

Only real effect (so far) has been the slow-doon (sorry) of federal label approvals, which I believe is considered a non-essential governmental service. Obviously, if the shutdown continues indefinitely, you will not see the emergence of scores of new wine, beer and spirits labels. (This may in fact be the only real blessing of the shutdown.)

-Randall Grahm, president & winemaker, Bonny Doon Vineyard, Santa Cruz, California

Obviously not this one, but from the shutdown that happened while we were getting licensed I can say that the timeline for approval was extended 25%+ *after* things started back up. From memory it was the same for existing companies getting label approval. So even if the shutdown ends tonight I’d expect it would be the end of the month at least before everything was back to normal.

-Corey Bowers, formerly of Tualatin Valley Distillery, Hillsboro, Oregon (via Twitter).

The government shut down actually impacts us quite a bit. Unlike most other distilleries we release new products very often. Since we opened in March of 2015 we have released over 50 whiskies. Most of these required government approval on their labels before we can sell them. When the government shuts down so does review of our new labels. We actually have several labels currently out for review that we’ll need to wait for the shut down to end before we can release those products. We are also in the process of designing our second distillery expansion that will include additional barrel storage and a new still that will increase our production capacity. Depending on how long the shut down goes this could delay our plans as government approvals are required before we can start construction and order our still.

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Lisa Wicker ascending a staircase

-Rich Lockwood, owner, Motor City Gas Distillery, Royal Oak, Michigan

We are fortunate we had our pending approvals finished before the shut down, but I am certainly feeling it for the people in queue. The TTB always slows over the holidays, so if the shutdown ends soon, the catch up for them may be eased. But…if it continues for any length of time, there will be a mess. I know I’ve had product on allocation in the past and waiting on formula and process approvals to have to wait again on labels, a lesson in patience when things are normal so I’m guessing there are producers, let’s say politely, tearing their hair out!
-Lisa Wicker, president & head distiller, Widow Jane Distillery, Brooklyn, New York
So, it seems that the shutdown is not yet a huge issue for winemakers and distillers without new products in the pipeline. The longer it drags on the greater the impact becomes, though, even after things start back up again. Here’s hoping they do soon.
Lisa Wicker photo used with permission.

Clear Creek Eau de Vie de Pomme, 8 y/o

Maker: Clear Creek, Portland, Oregon, USAwpid-2015-08-13-19.38.45.jpg.jpeg

Style: Aged apple brandy.

ABV: 40%

Price: $45 (Binny’s)

Appearance: Bright copper with a big clingy necklace around the edge of the snifter.

Nose: Alcohol, homemade applesauce, coriander, cardamom, ginger.

Palate: Mildly spicy and full bodied. Alcohol, apple juice, cassia, toasted oak

Finish: Hot. Chipotle, raspberry syrup, ginger, celery.

Parting words: American micro-distillers are making a lot of garbage right now. Most of that is wretched-tasting whiskey. That’s because bourbon and rye are very popular right now, so I can’t exactly blame them for cashing in. Unfortunately too many are focused on whiskey and ignoring other spirits besides the gin and vodka cash cows. What America needs is not another underaged and overpriced whiskey or vodka made from something someone picked up at the farmer’s market. What America needs is more rum, brandy, and especially apple brandy!

Steve McCarthy, founder of Clear Creek, recognized this thirty years ago (decades before distilling became a fad) and made apple brandy one of the pillars of his portfolio. This gem is the result. They have a range of fruit brandies including pear, raspberry, cherry, two plum brandies and a 2 y/o apple brandy and an “apple in the bottle” brandy.

This apple brandy is said to be made in the traditional methods of Calvados from Oregon Golden Delicious apples. I can’t speak to how closely its manufacture resembles that of Calvados, but it might be the best American apple brandy on the market. It’s definitely one of the best I’ve ever had. Black Star Farms’ 10 y/o is the only one I’ve had that comes close, but that’s $75 and only available at the tasting room. This might also be the best spirit available at this price. Clear Creek Eau de Vie de Pomme, 8 y/o is highly recommended.

A to Z Pinot Gris

Maker: A to Z, Dundee, Oregon USA

Grape: Pinot Gris/Grigio

Region: Oregon

Vintage: 2009

ABV: 13.5%

Appearance: Light golden straw.

Nose: Bosc pear, white grapefruit, musk melon, hint of smoke.

On the palate: Full-bodied, dry. Subdued Bosc pear, underripe peach, navel orange.

Finish: Dry, with a hint of oak tannin tapering off to a grapefruity bitterness.

Parting words: A to Z specializes in affordable Oregon varietals. Their line also includes a Pinot Noir, and a Riesling. This one has a good deal of Pinot Gris character. It is rather lacking in terroir-derived nuance, but one doesn’t expect much of that in a wine that lists an entire state on the label. This is a fine table wine that goes very well with chicken and pork. Recommended.