With three spirits planned for release in February and a new whiskey in April to celebrate five years of being in business, the distillers at Manatawny Still Works figured they were ahead of the game for the first half of 2019.
But after the federal government shut down on Dec. 22, the process by which labels are approved for the sale of new beer, wine, and distilled spirits came to a halt. No applications have been reviewed for weeks, leaving thousands of manufacturers around the country in a holding pattern when it comes to new releases.
The owners of Manatawny, a Pottstown-based distiller with a tasting room in South Philly, had planned to unveil a whiskey, a rum, and a gin for Valentine’s Day. “It’s looking like that’s not going to happen,” said Art Etchells, who manages the Philadelphia location. “We’re assuming we’re about 45 days out at this point.”
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, part of the U.S. Treasury Department, is tasked with approving labels for wine, beer, and spirits before they hit store shelves, ensuring they carry required information such as the alcohol content by volume.
Normally, the turnaround for such an approval might take only a few weeks, local distillers and brewers said, but no labels have been reviewed since the shutdown began. Manufacturers can still submit applications during the shutdown; on Tuesday, the website for the TTB indicated that the agency received more than 192,000 such applications in 2018 as of Dec. 21.
The delay is particularly concerning for craft-beer manufacturers, who rely on being able to offer customers an ever-changing list of new brews. Michael Contreras, director of sales and marketing for Delaware County’s 2SP Brewing Co., said the company had yeast and other ingredients ready to start brewing an imperial oatmeal stout, but scrapped it because it’s unclear they would get label approval by the time the beer is ready.
“A big part of craft beer is being able to experiment, come out with something new,” Contreras said. “It’s not just what the brewer wants; it’s what the customer wants. And not having that cuts out what makes up a big chunk of our business. If this goes on long term, it could be detrimental to us."
The delay also will mean fewer limited-edition brews this winter, such as any seeking to piggyback off the Eagles’ playoff season. The Eagles' Super Bowl victory last year spawned beers such as a “Fiddy Two” IPA by Urban Village Brewing Co., a “No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care" brew made by Bristol’s Broken Goblet Brewing, and “Underdog Lager” by Stable 12 Brewing Co.
In December, 2SP released a limited-edition beer made from Wawa coffee that was the biggest launch in the company’s history, Contreras said. “If we’d tried to put that out a month later, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
New liquor launches also are a big part of the business model for the craft spirits company Art in the Age, according to founder Steven Grasse. The latest product is a rye whiskey with notes of cherry, apple, and cardamom. Grasse had hoped to launch it for Valentine’s Day — a timeline about which he is becoming increasingly nervous.