Scotch in a Can Raises Questions

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I am rarely shocked, seldomly stunned and occasionally amazed. When I saw the mockup for a Scottish Spirits Imports, Inc. can of 3-year old “Single Grain Scotch Whisky,” I must admit to some reaction of bewilderment. Back in October, we saw the announcement that  Phusion Projects, marketers of the Four Loko brands, had reached an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that would require Phusion to change their cans to resealable packages for “flavored malt beverages that have more alcohol than the equivalent than 2.5 regular beers.”

My first question when I saw this was “What is a ‘regular’ beer?” There is a growing diversity of beer in the U.S. and world that the concept has no relevance, or decreasing relevance. One might assume that regular stands for a specific alcohol level in a malt-based beverage. One official reference to ‘regular’ beer is the USDA’s National Nutrient Datbase for Standard Reference, which lists a ‘regular beer’ as having 12 ounces and 153 calories.

FTC has traditionally worked on advertising and promotion issues for alcohol beverages; and packaging matters were generally left to the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). TTB would even contact brewers when their websites had a claim that violated TTB regs. Don’t even consider labeling a beer as “pre-war strength,” for example. Couple these developments with the Food and Drug Administration’s work on menu labeling, and it is no wonder brewers are starting to get confused. The TTB was the regulatory agency that most brewers dealt with singularly. The situation was clear and TTB contacts understoood beer and the beer market and generally regulated with clear standards and fairness in application.

The conspiracy theorist sympathizer in me is vigilantly attentive to anything that would try to put alcohol beverages into boxes of “standard drinks.” Alcohol beverages are consumed differently, impact the body differently, and are taxed differently for good reasons. I get concerned when a government agency uses language that may have unforeseen meanings.

Back to the can of Scotch. The mockup clearly says 40% ABV and 12 fl. oz. The supporting marketing website says  “Our ‘Scotch in a Can’ has eight shots (12 ounces) of Scotch straight out of the can–which is indeed a recyclable one.” I wonder:  is an 80-proof ounce-and-a-half a ‘regular shot’ or would that be reserved for a 100-proof ounce-and-a-half. It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out with regulators if it gets to the U.S. market as planned.

These are, of course, merely my observations and not an indication of any BA positions on these matters.

Paul Gatza

November 1, 2011