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9,999 Bottles of Beer on the Wall ...

December 16, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ While the rest of America is plunking down in front of TV sets to watch parades and football games on New Year’s Day, Alice Tauber expects to be, well ... counting bottles.

″I’m freaking out,″ she says. She smiles as she says this, but there’s a hint of panic as her eyes dart over thousands of bottles in the liquor store she and her husband Ed have owned for 16 years.

You see, all those bottles have to be counted so the Taubers can figure how much they’ll have to pay to cover the new federal excise tax increase.

They won’t be alone. Everyone who sells alcohol and cigarettes - some 600,000 retail outlets plus producers, importers and wholesalers - must count every bottle and every pack as of Jan. 1, the day the increase goes into effect.

This is a one-time inventory. Normally, producers and importers pay all excise taxes and in fact, they paid the taxes on everything now on the shelves. But those were the old, lower rates. So retailers must make up the difference between the old tax and the new tax on items still unsold.

Once they complete the count and pay the appropriate tax, retailers like the Taubers won’t have to worry about it again. Importers and producers will resume paying all the taxes at the new rate, generally passing along the cost in higher wholesale prices.

The Taubers’ extensive Continental Liquors store in downtown Washington always closes New Year’s Day. This year, the Taubers, their 10 employees, their 22-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son will all be working, probably for 11 straight hours.

″They’re dead if they don’t show up,″ Mrs. Tauber said.

Completing the inventory forms and determining the tax owed is not a job for the math-phobic.

Although almost all liquor is bottled in metric measures. Congress taxes by the gallon, the way producers measure their output. In addition, the tax on distilled spirits - such as vodka and bourbon - is based on so-called proof gallons, meaning gallons that are 100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol.

So it’s not enough for the Taubers simply to count all the bottles of vodka. There will be different taxes for a 750 milliliter bottle of 80-proof vodka, a 750 milliliter bottle of 100-proof vodka and a liter bottle of either strength.

An information packet provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which collects the tax, contains three lengthy pages of sample computations plus a page of mind-bending conversion charts that require multiplication by such numbers as 0.22915.

All this work should yield $300 million for government coffers by the end of June, when the tax is due, said ATF spokesman Jack Killorin. But it will be a ″challenge,″ Killorin said, for both the retailers and the ATF, which must check the accuracy of the inventories and taxes paid.

John B. Burcham Jr., executive director of the 10,000-member National Liquor Stores Association, said the inventory comes at a bad time.

″Retailers are ending up the very busiest months ... when it’s make or break for the whole year,″ Burcham said. The tax ″imposes a tremendous workload on retailers for which they get no return,″ he said.

There are some exceptions: Stores with small stocks, less than 500 gallons, must take inventory but won’t have to make up the tax gap.

And the inventory will be easier for fully computerized stores. The Taubers’ store is not.

Ed Tauber couldn’t even estimate how many types of distilled spirits, wine and beer the store carried, much less how many bottles were on hand.

″Thousands, just thousands,″ he said.

A count of the vodkas revealed just how massive the job is, and the store has far more wine than distilled liquor.

There are 51 different vodkas, including 750 milliliter and 1 liter bottles of the same vodkas. There are eight different choices of Stolichnaya alone, from the usual 80-proof and 100-proof bottles in two sizes each to the 90- proof Okhotnichya, flavored with mountain grass and heather honey.

Once the bottles are counted, Ed has to figure the appropriate new price for every single type of liquor, wine and beer in the store.

The tax increases already are set: $1 per proof gallon of distilled spirits; 90 cents per gallon of wine, excluding sparkling wine; $9 per barrel of beer, with 31 gallons per barrel; $2 per 1,000 cigarettes; and $1 per gallon of imported perfume.

But Tauber says he can’t simply impose a 25-cent price hike on each bottle. Some producers or wholesalers may decide to eat the tax hike to keep their product selling.

When the companies don’t tell him their new pricing plans, Tauber will have to guess.

Then there are the price tags.

″Every shelf tag will have to change,″ he said. ″We’ll have to slap another tag on each bottle.″

Businesses have until Jan. 10 to count bottles as long as they keep records enabling them to pinpoint what they had in stock New Year’s Day.

The Taubers hope to simplify matters by doing as much as possible that day.

And come Jan. 2, Mrs. Tauber said with a laugh, ″Either I’ll be in the hospital or I’ll be drunk.″

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