Robert N. Swetnick, Partner
Carolina Pineda Martinez, Special Counsel

June 20, 2019

There are multiple considerations to take into account when importing alcohol into the U.S., many of which may become a major pitfall if not addressed in due time. In this article we will explain how to import alcohol into the U.S. so that the process can be seamless and you may start your business as soon as possible!

There are four Federal agencies in charge of regulating the import of alcohol beverages into the U.S.. These agencies will be involved in different stages of the process.

  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Prior Notice of Importation

Before the alcoholic beverages are offered for import into the U.S., the FDA needs to be given prior notice. Doing this far in advance helps the FDA and the CBP process and inspect your imports as soon as they arrive at the U.S. port of entry.

Alcohol Importer Permit

All importers and wholesalers must be approved by the TTB. The TTB webpage makes it easy for you to apply and update your permit, registration, or notice through its “Permits Online” feature, at no cost. You will have to provide information including your name, contact information, as well as the information of your business in the U.S. Once the application is filed, it will take up to nine weeks to receive the permit. Please bear in mind this account is not transferable and can only be used by you.

If you do not currently have a business in the U.S., you must enter into a contract with an importer who is currently licensed. If you choose to conduct business in this way, there is no need to apply for a permit under the TTB.

In case you decide to sell your products yourself, it is necessary to obtain a Wholesaler permit, also through the TTB webpage.

Food Facility Registration

The FDA requires that foreign alcohol makers register under the guidelines of the Food Facility Registration Regulation, even as a foreign companies. This must be done as part of the FDA’s efforts to protect the public from a threatened or actual terrorist attack on the U.S. food supply and other food-related emergencies. Current regulations require that facilities engaged in manufacturing, processing, packing, or holding food for consumption in the U.S. submit additional registration information to FDA, including an assurance that FDA will be permitted to inspect the facility.

Certificate of Label Approval

You must get a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) for your imports. This certificate demonstrates compliance with FDA guidelines under the TTB’s Advertising, Labeling and Formulation Division. This may be done through the Permits Online tool as well.

The TTB has very specific guidelines for labeling alcohol which include obtaining a Certificate of Age or a Certificate of Origin. The certification you need varies depending on the alcohol you intend to import. For some, such as Whiskey, both certificates are needed. The certificate must state:

  • Where the alcohol was produced.
  • How long the alcohol has been aged.
  • The percentage of alcohol in the beverage.

Depending on the type of alcohol imported, the COLA process might include pre-COLA authorization. This process ensures that:

  • No prohibited ingredients are in the alcohol.
  • Tax and product classifications are clear.
  • Ingredients are limited within determined restrictions.
  • Beverages without a sulfite declaration are less than 10 parts per million sulfur dioxide.

Customs Bonds, Taxes, Duties, and Fees for Imported Alcohol

The CBP requires a customs bond to cover the payment of taxes and duties to the U.S. government when importing goods subject to federal regulations or that are valued at more than $2,500. Because importing alcoholic beverages involves several government agencies, a customs bond will be very likely required. The CBP and the Internal Revenue Service also collect excise tax on all imported wine, beer and distilled spirits.

It’s also important to include the proper documents with your imported alcohol. These are some of the documents you will be needing, other items may be added depending on origin and type of product:

  • A commercial invoice listing the purchase price, the country of origin for your imports, and tariff classification of your items.
  • A packing list including details of your imports.
  • A bill of lading listing the alcohol imported in the form of a receipt.

State and Local Requirements

Once the alcohol has been imported, there will be State regulations relating to its sale and distribution. Depending on which State you’re importing into, you may have to deal with additional requirements or restrictions. For example, in the State of New York, a Warehouse Permit is needed in order to store alcoholic beverages off-site. This permit is issued by the New York State Liquor Authority (NYSLA).

In order to obtain this permit, the following items are required:

  • A diagram of the area;
  • Proof of liability insurance;
  • Interior and exterior photographs; and
  • a $5,000 penal bond.

Even though it may seem daunting, this process is not complicated with the right guidance! Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions or if you would like our help in obtaining the required permits.