Friday, April 19, 2013
How Illegal Is It to Collect Whiskey?
It's been just a week since the Bourbon Exchange on Facebook was announced. It has had a lively debut, with lots of people joining and posting, and already a couple of changes brought on by legal concerns.
There can be no doubt that it is against the law to sell alcohol without a license, but what people want to know is it against the law like jaywalking is against the law, or like robbing liquor stores is against the law.
To give a good, lawyerly answer: it depends.
For the most part, laws regarding the possession, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages are entirely up to the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency to enforce. They have their own enforcement arms, their own investigators. Infractions of the ABC's rules are not crimes as far as the police are concerned. Police don't get involved unless the ABC asks for their help.
Someone operating an unlicensed bar or selling liquor out of the back of a minivan, or a licensed retailer selling to minors, that's what they care about. Nobody is looking to bust collectors, especially if their activity is entirely non-commercial.
That doesn't make trading, buying, and selling legal, it's still illegal, but if you're doing a deal now and then, the truth is that nobody is out there looking for you.
Inspector Javert doesn't care.
What constitutes non-commercial? I know people who have hundreds of bottles in their collections. In some instances, they have cases of specific products that are now considered rare and valuable. Most didn't think they were developing an inventory, they were following a personal passion, but now they have cases of something they bought for $50 a bottle that people are paying $500 for.
This happens in other kinds of collecting too, from stamps to automobiles. Someone who knows the market better than the average collector can make out by doing better deals. They might be able to make a living at it. They might get rich.
As you can see, this isn't a simple matter.
Most collectors of most things engage in some buying and selling, sometimes in the form of trading. The object is to use pieces you don't need or care less about to obtain pieces you must have and care desperately about. This is a normal part of the collecting experience, millions of people do it, but if the thing you collect contains potable alcohol, that activity is prohibited by law.
Each state ABC is independent, answerable to its state legislature. Each state's laws are a little different. Each ABC has its own policies and priorities, and they don't exactly announce in advance what aspects of their laws they intend to enforce with vigor.
But if they post their enforcement actions online, you won't find among them, "Caught Suspect X trying to trade two 2006 Sazerac 18s and a 2009 Stagg for a 2007 Pappy Van 23."
As for the Facebook Bourbon Exchange, there probably isn't very much a state ABC can do about a page like that if it wants to and there is no reason to believe anyone wants to. It's also hard to imagine the ATF or TTB getting involved. It's not inconceivable, just unlikely.
At the most, some ABCs may be keeping an eye on the phenomenon to see if it develops into anything they need to concern themselves with.
What they care about is when they suspect (as happened in Tennessee with a Jack Daniel's collector site a couple of years ago) that the supposedly altruistic fellow running the thing is actually making money hand over fist. When a lot of money seems to be changing hands and no taxes are being collected, that's when government agencies pay attention, and call in the state police to help.
This isn't legal advice, it's legal information. Unfortunately, we have a situation where a lot of people want to do something, they don't see anything wrong (i.e., harmful) with what they want to do, but there is no way for them to do it legally. If the state alcohol regulators get interested, or if whiskey collecting grows in popularity to the point where they have to, let's hope that instead of treating it like a criminal problem, they look instead for ways to make this innocent hobby legal in all respects, so whiskey collectors finally can emerge from the shadows.