Taxing alcohol has got to be the easiest way for any smart government to raise tax revenue. There are of course tales of the cat-and-mouse games of the smuggler and the revenue collector, not just in Scotch whisky history, but anywhere in the world that alcohol is subject to taxes. When restrictions on whisky distilling were relaxed in the UK following the Excise Act of 1823, the exciseman, or ‘guager’, became the nemesis of the illicit distiller, as well as becoming a permanent fixture in the legal distilleries of the 19th century. Indeed, at one time, an office full of revenue collectors was necessary at the larger distilleries to ensure the correct taxes were levied.
Over time different jurisdictions have tried to simplify the process by developing their own stamps to show that the correct tax has been paid on a bottle of spirits. For modern collectors and enthusiasts these tax stamps and tax strips can offer additional clues to not only dating a bottle, but also tracing its provenance.
What is a tax strip?
A tax strip, or duty stamp, is a label affixed to a bottle of alcohol to show that the relevant customs duties and excise taxes have been paid to the government. Tax strips are created to be difficult to counterfeit and, like cash, often feature fine details and complex designs to deter forgers. They are usually applied by the producer or the importer of the goods. Some tax strips are applied over the closure and double as a tamper-proof seal.
UK Tax Stamp
The small pink circle can be part of the label design, or it can be attached as a sticker to bottles of spirits. These are used on bottles of alcohol that are intended for the UK market, are higher than 30% ABV, and are packaged in bottles of 35cl or more.
Spirits that are to be exported, or sold on ships or aircraft, or are intended for the use of diplomats don’t need stamps.
The UK tax stamp has been in use since 2006. Prior to this, there was no indication on a bottle whether appropriate taxes had been paid.
Pre 2006 bottles may have a stamp added retrospectively if the bottle has passed through a UK retailer or bonded warehouse.
Italian tax strips and medals have been in use at least since the 1930s.
Scotch whisky has an enduring popularity in Italy and many of the veteran bottles we receive for auction are adorned with various Italian tax decorations.
Between 1933 and the end of the 1950s, it was common for Italian bottles to have a small metal medallion. These were either attached by string or form part of the closure. With Italian bottles from this era, particularly liqueurs, the duty medallion often forms part of the seal, which prevents bottles from being refilled and resealed.
The colourful paper tax strips were not introduced until the mid-1950s and have changed over the years. This gives auctioneers an indication of when the bottle was imported to Italy. Caution though, you should be wary of using Italian tax strips to date a bottle. Importers would order tax strips by the thousand and continue using them until they ran out, and when the design changed, the importer was allowed to use up their remaining strips before ordering the new tax strip design. So it is not uncommon to see a tax strip from the 1960s on a bottle which would have been filled in the 1980s, for example.
Duty labels have been in use in Spain since the end of the 19th century, and over the years have included a bewildering array of strips and stamps of varying colours, shapes and sizes.
As well as tracking the increasing price of excise duty over the decades, tax strips can offer insights into changing social landscapes of the time. For instance Spanish tax strips from the Franco era feature the ‘coat of arms of the eagle’, this was removed once he fell from power.
Canadian tax strips were applied to ‘bottled in bond’ spirits and are not technically revenue stamps. Anyhow, until 1994, the strips provided a key piece of information which is the date a spirits was made.
The year stated is the year in which the youngest whisky in the bottle was distilled. The bottling year can usually be assumed to be between three and ten years later unless an age is stated.
Canada’s tax strips became bilingual (English and French) in 1974.
USA Tax Strips
Tax strips were introduced on US bottles following the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, which sought to standardise the quality of spirits (mostly whiskey) being sold domestically.
The green strips carried the name of the producer as well as the ‘Made’ and ‘Bottled’ dates, and assured the consumer that the whiskey was distilled in a single season by a single distiller, that it had been matured for at least four years, and that it was bottled at 100 Proof.
For export bottles blue strips were used and there was no requirement for bottling at 100 Proof.
Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Federal tax strips were introduced. These red strips were seen on bourbon and other American spirits until the Tax Reform Act of 1984 ended their usage. The US tax strips had become so reassuring to drinkers that after 1984 some brands introduced their own paper seals over the caps of their bottles.
In addition to the paper tax strips, some bottles have small, colourful, postage stamp-sized decals, these are State stamps with the State Treasurer’s signature and sometimes carry a bottling date.