My bottle is bigger than yours

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At the Park Grill dinner I attended during the New York Whisky Fest, Michael Urquhart of Gordon and MacPhail was discussing the range of G&M available in the US:

The challenge we have is that 700 ml is not a permitted size, so we have to bottle at 750. Here we have about 155 different expressions so it’s quite a wide range – whiskies from all different areas of Scotland. But if you were able to have the laws changed to have a 700 ml bottle permitted, your choices would increase by three-fold overnight.

He was referring to was the fact that the “standard” bottle in the US is a 750 milliliter (ml) bottle while in Europe the standard is 700 ml.

I wondered…”Why do we use 750 ml bottles here in the US and why don’t we simply import the 700 ml bottles.” After all, 50 ml, isn’t a large amount of liquid – in fact, it is equivalent to the contents of a standard “airplane” or mini bottle and equates to just a single (good-sized) dram or 1.69070113 ounces. So what’s the issue?

Law or Regulation?
Michael was mistaken about one thing – it is not a “law” that sets the bottling size at 750 ml, but a “regulation”.

  • A US law is the official rules and codes that govern including the Constitution, statutory laws enacted by the Legislature, case laws established by court decisions, and administrative law as set forth by executive branch agencies.
  • A regulation, on the other hand, are rules enforced by a government agency to restrict or control economic activity in price setting, product standards, trading standards and the conditions under which firms can enter an industry.

In the end it doesn’t matter if the reason is based on a law or a regulation – the bottom line is that alcohol produced in Europe must be packaged in a different sized bottle if it is to be imported into the US. Since this adds additional cost, Scotch producers naturally don’t go to the trouble to bottle every expression for American distribution.

So Why 750?
In order to answer that question we’ll need a lesson in US civics.
For this we refer to one of my favorite pieces of Federal Regulation:
Title 27 which covers alcohol – we turn to Part 5: Labeling & Advertising of Distilled Spirits, Subpart E: Standards of Fill for Bottled Distilled Spirits. I won’t reprint the entire regulation here (it’s not that exciting, and you can read it for yourself), but it all hinges on this:

§ 5.46   Standard liquor bottles.

(a) General. A standard liquor bottle shall be one so made and formed, and so filled, as not to mislead the purchaser. An individual carton or other container of a bottle shall not be so designed as to mislead purchasers as to the size of the bottles.

I had a chat with Mr. Dan Hiland of The Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau who gave me all the details. A little background on this organization – the AT-TTB, formerly part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF) is now part if the Department of Treasury. The TTB’s mission is to:

Collect alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and ammunition excise taxes; to ensure that these products are labeled, advertised, and marketed in accordance with the law; and to administer the laws and regulations in a manner that protects the consumer and the revenue, and promotes voluntary compliance.

We carry out these responsibilities by developing regulations,
conducting product analysis, ensuring tax and trade compliance with the Federal Alcohol Administration Act and the Internal Revenue Code.

OK, back to the topic.

Standards of fill
It all started in the mid to late 1970′s when there was a push for America to join the rest of the world and move to metric standards. Of course, Americans are too resistant to change and the metric implementation was apparently only taken seriously by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms who duly passed regulations to switch the bottle sizes of alcoholic beverages from ounces to milliliters (unfortunately they didn’t get rid of the concept of “proof” at the same time – but that is another story).

Prior to December 31, 1979, the standards bottle sizes were defined at:

  • 1 gallon
  • 1/2 gallon
  • 1 quart
  • 4/5 quart
  • 1 pint
  • 4/5 pint
  • 1/2 pint
  • 1/8 pint
  • 1/10 pint
  • 1/16 pint (brandy only)

After January 1, 1980 the standards were changed to:

  • 1.75 liters
  • 1.00 liter
  • 750 milliliters
  • 500 milliliters (Authorized for bottling until June 30, 1989)
  • 375 milliliters
  • 200 milliliters
  • 100 milliliters
  • 50 milliliters

So, why did the US go with 750 ml as opposed to 700 ml?

Hold on. I’m getting there  – the answer is simple, but will be made even more simple as I demonstrate my mad skillz with Excel:

(Ed. NOTE. The graphic didn’t make the transition to WordPress. Will Recreate as soon as I can)

Conversion_1

Prior to 1980 the most common bottle size  for alcohol was the “4/5 quart” – commonly referred to as a “fifth” (as it equates to
one/ fifth of a gallon).

Looking out for the consumer was a priority for the regulators, so the decision to go with  a 750 ml bottle was a simple one.

At 25.6 ounces the 4/5 bottle was very close in volume to 750 milliliters – which is
the equivalent of 25.36 ounces.

Had the BATF decided to go with a 700 ml bottling, Americans would have been short-changed by the previously mentioned 1.69070113 ounces. It was decided, in the interest of consumer protection, to stick with a bottle size that was as close as possible to the old 4/5th bottle.

Due to the small difference in capacity, most people are hard pressed to discern between a 700 ml and a 750 ml bottle without a peek at the label. Worried that some unscrupulous producers MIGHT have offered the 700 ml bottle at the same price as the 4/5 bottle, the BATF decided to standardize on the 750 ml bottle.Taking that decision further, the BATF decided to disallow the
importation of 700 ml bottles for the same reason – to eliminate potential fraud on consumers.

Math in the real world
Let’s use a real world example to see the true difference between the 700 and 750 ml bottles:

Interestingly, the 750 ml bottle is still commonly referred to as a ”fifth”, though as you can see, this is no longer accurate. The “fifth” was the preferred single serving size for most hard drinking metal bands of the 1980′s. So let’s use a mythical band we’ll call DC/AC.

The members of DC/AC would drink five (5) – 4/5th quarts to consume a full gallon of booze.

They would have to drink five (5) – 750 ml bottles AND an additional 1.2 ounces to consume that same full gallon of booze.

By comparison, using 700 ml bottles, the band would be forced to drink five (5) of the 700 ml bottles AND an additional 9.65 ounces to reach their gallon quota.

In conclusion
So, we get a bigger bottle here in the US – but the downside is that we miss out on all those good 700 ml bottlings.

Want to have a chance to have the 700 ml bottles imported? You’ll simply have to petition the TTB. Any one up for that? The average $60 bottle of Scotch (theoretically) would come down in price by $2.37 – BUT with more choices, we could see further price reductions…I’m game.


Bonus Answer
One final thing. Mr. Hiland verified what I have been telling people for years. “Bourbon” can be made anywhere in the United States. It is a protected term in regard to International Law (and as such can only be called “bourbon” if it is made in the US), but the state of Kentucky has no monopoly on the term. Go ahead and make that fine Montana Bourbon.

And stop arguing with me.

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Comments (6)

  1. Kevin, start the petition and I’ll be the second one to sign it! I’ve been wondering about this too, and I’m glad you explained it for us…

    Mark

  2. I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Hiland. Poking around on WhiskyAuction.com is coming up with a smattering of 75cl bottlings from the 1970s sold in European countries.

    The version I’ve heard was the choice between 750ml and 1L and that the industry was suffering from inflation and a weak dollar so the choice was to go with the round figure closest to 757ml rather than increasing volume and price. In other words, the industry picked a size and the ATF formalized it.

    Part of me has to question whether state governments aren’t a player in this. States, known for their brutal control over alcohol imports, have an incentive to require a special bottling volume unlike the rest of the world. It’s harder to grey market something imported from abroad if the volume sizes don’t match up. Even nomenclature plays into this because American bottlings are “750ml” and not “75cl”. Any savvy state official will notice that the bottle did not come through standard ATF channels and pull the establishment’s liquor license.

    So with these things in mind, it’s probably safe to say that there was more to the 750ml choice than Mr. Hiland put forward.

  3. As the importer of Cachaca Fazenda Mae De Ouro I deal with US bottle size regulations and on a regular basis. And though I encourage more diverse spirits for sale in the US, bottle size regulations are not the barrier to entry; it is the willingness of the producer to go the extra distance to get their product sold in the USA. For the producer that wants to be in this market there are some options: 1) stock bottles, (like ours) which are inexpensive, less pretty but are readily available in all the required sizes (for the most part). 2) Or bottles can be made to spec. (custom bottles) and in the world of spirits a custom 15,000 bottle run is not a lot (just 1,250 cases). Both are perfectly valid options for any producer that wants to be sold here.

    I really do think it is very important to have standard size bottles because it protects the US consumer, at least to some extent. Let’s consider the 1L versus 750ml bottle. It is common in our industry to use thicker glass and taller bottles to make 750′s look as large as possible on the shelf. By putting premium spirits into only 750ml bottles it prevents consumers have a point of reference on what the product should cost compared to a 1L bottle. For example: Say you see a bottle priced at $23.99 for a 750ml bottle. A competitor is priced at $27.99 for a 1L bottle. Which is the average US consumer more likely to buy? The 750ml because it’s the perception is that it is a better value when in fact it is not. ($23.99 converted to a 1L price is $31.99).

    To permit 700ml bottles would even further blur the lines, giving producers 6.6% less in costs, and consumers 6.6% less product and more likely at a price that will remain at $23.99 for a 700ml bottle (converts to $34.25 per liter)

    Dave Catania
    Cachaca Fazenda Mae De Ouro

    http://www.caipirinha.us

  4. Hey Dave,
    Thanks for your views. Are you importing in bulk and bottling here?
    That makes a big difference, especially with The SWA making plans to pass a ruling that Single Malt must be bottled in Scotland.

    Feel free to send me some samples, I don’t only rink Scotch :)

  5. Kevin:
    I had heard that there was an issue with the French wine market changing bottle sizes from 75cl to 70cl which also lead to the reason as to why the US has a different standard than the UK and EU.

    I may have the conversation turned upside down, however, I thought it would be something to look into.

    As for myself the issue of 75 and 70cl bottles is quite difficult for us small bottlers. We need to stock everything 2x’s including the labels. The costs of needing to have everything 2x does not add up to savings for the consumer. I would be 100% in favor of either a global bottle size standard and/or the ability to sell either size in the same market.

    cheers,

    The Wild Scotsman

  6. Shachar Gat

    What are the regulations if I produce and bottle spirits in the USA (Tequila, Vodka, Rum) and export to Europe? Can i?
    Ple provide details if you can???

    Thx.

    Shachar Gat
    VP Operations & Logistics
    Email: sgat@innovativeliquors.com

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