In a surprising move, the US TTB announced today (Dec. 28th, 2020) they will soon expand the set of “standards of fill” for wine and distilled spirits. While this sounds bureaucratic and sleep inducing, its huge news for distilled spirits enthusiasts (including my rum geek friends), who will benefit from more access to bottlings which previously couldn’t be imported into the US

I’ve written about this topic previously, but in brief, the US government (the TTB) only allows spirits to be sold in certain size containers (“standards of fill”):

  • 50 ml
  • 100 ml
  • 200 ml
  • 375 ml
  • 750 ml
  • 1000 ml (1 liter)
  • 1750 ml (1.75 liters)

Unfortunately, in Europe and elsewhere, 700 ml is the typical spirit bottle size, not 750 ml. This small difference is enough to prevent those bottles from legally being imported for sale into the US (US citizens can of course bring back spirits for private use, regardless of container size.)

While big, multinational brands have no issue bottling in both 700 ml and 750 ml containers for the appropriate market, smaller brands have financial or logistical issues in creating two bottles, especially for something very limited like a single cask release. Thus, many brands simply bottle in 700 ml containers and forego the US market.

This new TTB ruling opens up the door for those brands to bring their 700 ml bottles into the US. The actual ruling is much broader in scope, but for us spirit collectors, the possibility of finally being able to acquire 700 ml bottles without international travel or paying enormous shipping fees is huge, huge news.

Mind you, 700 ml bottles won’t immediately appear on shelves here in the US, so be patient—change is coming!

For those of you looking for more details Here are lightly annotated excerpts from the key sections:

SUMMARY: This final rule amends the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulations that govern wine and distilled spirits containers to add seven new standards of fill for wine and distilled spirits. Although TTB had originally proposed to generally eliminate the standards of fill for wine and distilled spirits, TTB is not adopting that proposal at this time. The amendments described in this final rule will provide bottlers with flexibility by allowing the use of the added container sizes, and will facilitate the movement of goods in domestic and international commerce, while also providing consumers broader purchasing options.

It then reviews the current standards of fill

Current Standards of Fill for Distilled Spirits

The standards of fill for distilled spirits are contained in subpart E of part 5 of the TTB regulations (27 CFR part 5). Within subpart E, paragraph (a)(1) of § 5.47a (27 CFR 5.47a(a)(1)) specifies the following metric standards of fill for containers other than those described in paragraph (a)(2) of that section:

1.75 liters;
1 liter;
750 milliliters;
500 milliliters (authorized only until June 30, 1989);
375 milliliters;
200 milliliters;
100 milliliters; and
50 milliliters.

Before making decisions, the TTB puts out their proposals for public comment. Here’s their summary of the proposals (Notice 182 and 183):

Notice No. 182 proposed to eliminate all but a minimum standard of fill for wine containers. The minimum container size was retained to ensure the container would be of sufficient size to accommodate required labeling.

Notice No. 183 proposed to eliminate all but minimum and maximum standards of fill for distilled spirits. Retaining the minimum was proposed to ensure the container would be of sufficient size to accommodate required labeling, while the maximum maintains the distinction between bottled and bulk products.

The TTB helpfully summarizes the comments they received:

TTB received 644 comments in response to Notice No. 182 and 603 comments in response to Notice No. 183, for a total of 1,247 comments. Commenters included producers, wholesale distributers, retailers, trade associations (domestic and foreign), members of Congress, foreign government entities, and members of the public.

Of the 1,326 comments TTB received, 1,251 comments address the proposed elimination of the standards of fill. A total of 110 comments support the proposal—40 comments to Notice No. 182, 40 comments to Notice No. 183, and 30 comments to Notice No. 176.

Of the 1,141 comments opposed to eliminating the standards of fill—575 commenters to Notice No. 182, 560 commenters to Notice No.183, and 6 comments to Notice No. 176—960 are nearly identical form letters, a majority of which are associated with three wholesale distributing companies and their employees.

Commenters supporting the elimination of the standards of fill generally state that the standards are unnecessary, restrictive to producers, and out-of-date. They note that there are no standards of fill for malt beverages or for other consumer products, and state that this does not cause difficulties.

Commenters opposing the elimination of the standards of fill cite a number of reasons to retain the standards. The most often cited argument is that the standards of fill prevent consumer confusion. For example, commenters state that eliminating the standards of fill will cause a proliferation of sizes, making it difficult for consumers to compare prices on similar products.

Distilled spirits – 700 milliliter: This size was supported by 18 commenters, who generally state that the 700 milliliter size is popular in other countries, so approval will facilitate trade and allow U.S. consumers more options in imported distilled spirits. However, several other commenters specifically cite the 700 milliliter size as a size that should not be approved. These commenters state that 700 milliliter is too close to the currently approved 750 milliliter size, and also contend that the size is the most popular bottle size worldwide with counterfeiters.

And finally, 23 pages in, the TTB gets to the punchline:

TTB Finding After careful analysis of the comments discussed above, TTB has decided not to eliminate the standards of fill for wine and distilled spirits. Rather, TTB is adding certain sizes for which TTB had aired petitions in Notice Nos. 182 and 183. Based upon the comments received to those notices, TTB is authorizing the addition of the 200, 250, and 355 milliliters sizes for wine to § 4.72, and the 700, 720, 900 milliliters, and 1.8 liters sizes for distilled spirits to § 5.47a.

All of the above is just my take of the key portions. I encourage people with further interest to read the full document here.