Last weekend, Joel Evanson celebrated the grand opening of his North Spokane distillery, Evanson Handcrafted Distilling, after more than a year of wading through paperwork and waiting for government approval. But the full opening is hindered by another government holdup — Evanson makes whiskey and vodka (at both 80 and 100 proof), but because of the government shutdown, only the 80-proof vodka is for sale.
Before Evanson can sell a single bottle of the whiskey or the 100-proof vodka, the labels need to be approved by a federal agency called the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, commonly called the TTB — and, like most other federal agencies, it stopped operating on Oct. 1 when Congress failed to pass a crucial spending bill funding federal government operations.
"We just have to wait," Evanson says.
The shutdown means craft breweries, wineries, cideries and distilleries can't get labels approved for their seasonal releases. New businesses waiting for approval to open their doors are also stuck on hold. Paul Ziegman of Tinbender Craft Distillery reapplied several weeks ago for approval of the new downtown distillery, and now sees the overall wait time stretching out for months as the application languishes.
"As far as I know, it's just sitting on someone's desk wherever they walked away from it," Ziegman says.
A shutdown notice at TTB.gov says online payment access is still available, but other functions are not and site information may not be up to date: "TTB will suspend all non-excepted TTB operations, and no personnel will be available to respond to any inquiries, including emails, telephone calls, facsimiles, or other communications."
With the recent boom in craft breweries and distilleries, the agency has already been struggling to keep up with the influx of applications. Before the process halted with the shutdown, the TTB reported an average of 38 days for label approval for distilled spirits. (Beer and wine were listed at 12 days and 25 days, respectively.) The process is already considered opaque and difficult to navigate for small business owners, and they got no notice about what to expect from the shutdown. Evanson is paying quarterly taxes for the first time and continuing to send in forms, uncertain of whether anyone is receiving them.
"Hopefully there's somebody there checking them," he says, "but there probably isn't." ♦