A Tall Whiskey COLA: Navigating a Web of US Labeling Laws

In my last article, I talked about one aspect of government involvement in alcohol labeling: the nutrition label, or lack thereof. You will be unsurprised to learn that while the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau may not require the listing of calories and carbs, it has a lot to say about virtually every other aspect of what goes on a label. If you’re a brewer, vintner or distiller, and you have a new product to sell, you’ll need a Certificate of Label Approval—a COLA—before that new beer, wine or spirit can hit the shelves.

This is the second of three articles about alcohol labeling law.
Image from The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum

Say you want to release a beer. It’s a big IPA, so you start there; in small letters across the bottom of your label, you state: “IPA, 11.2% ABV.” You plan to sell it in tall-boy cans, so you list the volume: 16oz. In test runs the beer has proven super popular with sailors from the local Navy yard, so you run with that. You have your graphic artist draw up a picture of a big Navy guy, beer in hand, naked lady at his feet. On the back you write, “Enjoyed by the heroes of Mytown Navy Yard!” Underneath that you add, “Warning: This beer will mess. You. Up. Down it with care!” After all that, you don’t have much room for the government warning, but you squeeze it in there. It’s small, but you put the whole thing in bold so it stands out a little better.

You send your new label to TTB for review, and a week later you get a response. Bad news: yours is one of the 20% of labels that are rejected. You look over their comments, and while a few make sense, you’re surprised to find out that you did literally everything wrong.

For starters, the naked lady is definitely an issue. No surprise there. The claim that the sailors enjoy it is a problem too, since there can’t be any implication that the government or the military endorse your booze. Then there’s the “down it with care” warning you put on there: claims about the strength of the drink are also out of bounds.

But beyond those big concerns, there are myriad smaller corrections needed. The government warning text is too small, and while the words “government warning” have to be in bold, the rest of it cannot be. The abbreviation “IPA” doesn’t cut it; it has to say India Pale Ale. “ABV” is also not good enough; it might be common parlance, but it’s not legally recognized. It’ll need to be changed to Alc./Vol or something similar. At 1.8mm, the text is also too small. Finally, anything above or below 16oz can display the ounces, but if it’s exactly that much, it has to be called a pint. Looks like you’ve got a long night of corrections ahead of you.

Put IPA on there big as you please, but it better spell it out, too. Image source

Alcoholic beverage makers are under a ton of pressure to make their label stand out. There are over 4,000 distributing breweries in the US, and thousands of wine and spirits brands, all competing for shelf space in bars, liquor stores and supermarkets. Label fatigue compounds the challenge; many consumers, feeling overwhelmed by choice, are just going to grab something they know.

With all that pressure, it’s easy to understand how these regulatory details can get overlooked in the push to get an eye-catching label out the door—especially when you consider that COLA is just the federal rules, and each state also has their own. It’s no wonder that a small cadre of industry consultants have popped up, helping businesses through the process for a price.

In 2018, TTB received over 192,000 COLA applications. They’ve gotten quite good at turning them around—at least as long as the government’s operational. During the recent shutdown, COLA approvals piled up. New and seasonal beer releases sat unbottled in their tanks, and a month’s worth of backlog greeted the furloughed reviewers upon their return. Now that’s no fun for anybody involved.[i]

[i] Examples and information in this article come from articles by Andrew Zender, a.k.a. the Beer Label Guy, and Hops and Vine Consultants, as well as the TTB website.

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