A Wonky Guide to Finding Unreleased and Obscure Spirits

If you ask me for my favorite site for learning about new spirits releases, I’m almost positive the answer will surprise you. Sure, there are great sites like Liquor.com and countless blogs (including this one) which breathlessly promote little nuggets of information, frequently gleaned from a spirits company’s PR rep. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But what if I told you about a site that lists every single purchasable spirit, regardless of who makes it? And frequently well before it’s on any liquor store shelf? (Small disclaimer: This site only covers spirits for sale in the United States, but the U.S. has a huge spirits market.) Now are you intrigued? Even better, imagine that site was searchable by product name, type of spirit, or producer? Now how much would you pay?

The cost of this site (pull out your wallet)…is free! In exchange for this wealth of information, however, prepare to be inflicted with a web site reminiscent of a student project accounting database, circa 1995. Yes, it’s a U.S. government web site, and my initial experiences with it made me long for something more pleasurable, like filing my taxes. Nonetheless, I persevered, took notes, and came up with a strategy to tame the beast, which I’ll share here. Along the way I found a ton of cool information, including several new unannounced Plantation rums, as well as a Doorly’s rum release previously only available in Barbados.

But first, a little background.  In the United States, the spirits industry is regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, shortened typically to the Tax and Trade Bureau or TTB, for short. The TTB handles the taxation and regulatory aspects of all legally sold beer, wine, or spirits within the U.S. One aspect of this is label approval, and by label I mean the (typically) printed paper labels that are attached to spirits bottles. Each unique type of spirit requires its own label – if you make 47 different types of moonshine (“apple pie,” “cinnamon toast,” “glazed donut,”, etc…), you’ll need 47 different label approvals. The end result of an approved label is termed a Certificate of Label Approval, or COLA (nope, I’m not making that up).

To get label approval, applicants (including distillers and importers, large and small) submit exact wording and images of the label for review by TTB examiners. Frequently the TTB rejects labels for very unusual reasons. St. George Spirits tells an interesting story about the TTB rejecting an image of a monkey on the label of their absinthe because it might imply the contents had hallucinogenic properties. TTB also categorizes each spirit with a numeric code indicating its type. For instance, 153 is “SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY,” while 284 is “GIN – CHERRY FLAVORED.” (Yeah…more on these later.) In addition, every spirits producer (distilleries or importers) gets its own unique TTB code. More on these later as well.

The starting point for the TTB COLA search process is this page:

https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/publicSearchColasBasic.do

TTB Home - Simple

However, simply typing in something seemingly obvious like “Maker’s Mark” into the Product Name field and clicking “search” (way down at the bottom) leads to a disappointing “No results were found…” page. You need to be a little more specific in your searching. This isn’t Google, after all. This site just looks up documents in a database, and there’s no fuzzy matching to speak of. So, what to do?

Look closer and you’ll see that the default date range only goes back about a month, so unless you explicitly change the date range, you’re only seeing very recent approvals. It’s maddening that each time you start a new search, the search dates revert back to the default, so if you’re not finding what you think you should, check the date range first. The database goes back 15 years, so I typically plunk in 1/1/2001 in the “Date Completed – From” field when doing very broad searches.

Next go to the Advanced Search Page:

https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/publicSearchColasAdvanced.do

TTB Home - Advanced

I always start here, rather than the basic page. It offers a few useful lists for looking up codes. In the “Product Class/Type” section, you’ll see a listbox. Clicking on either “Show Codes” or “Show Description” changes the sort order of what’s in the listbox. Truthfully, I find “Show Codes” much easier to navigate, as broad categories of spirts are lumped together numerically. You can select a range of codes (say, all rum) easily if you’re in “Show Codes” mode. Here’s a link that displays all product codes:

https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/lookupProductClassTypeCode.do?action=search&display=all#search_results

Product type codes

Another listbox is in the Origin Code section. This is where you can narrow down your search to products from a particular region. For instance, Scotland is 5K while 5L is Honduras. The two-digit codes are seemingly random. Each U.S. state has its own region code. Here’s a link to list all region codes:

https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/lookupOriginCode.do?action=search&display=all#search_results

Origin Code - US

Origin Code - Foreign

Once you’ve entered in some reasonable combination of date range, “Product Name” (always select “Either”), product code(s), and Origin, hit Search. If the liquor gods are with you, you’ll see results like this:

Initial Results

The column headers (TTB ID, Permit No., etc…) are clickable to sort on that field. I find it helpful to sort by Brand Name, as the “Fanciful Name” is often blank. Don’t despair yet if this page isn’t providing you with zen level of enlightenment. After all, isn’t it obvious what this means?

Results, single line

At this point, we’re very close to what we’re after. Look closely at the “TTB ID” column. It’s a hyperlink. Clicking it yields something like this:

Cola Detail

There’s a bit more information here than on the “results” page. For instance, the “Plant Registry/Basic Permit/Brewers No.” is spelled out. But it’s still pretty dry, lifeless information.  However, this page is the portal to where things get interesting:  Near the top left, click “Printable Version.” A small browser page appears in a separate window. This page is the gold you’re here for. It shows label images and essentially everything else submitted for label approval. Yes! The actual labels that will appear on the bottle! You’ll need to scroll down to the bottom of this page to see them, however. This page could be far more user friendly, but in fairness, it’s merely reproducing the TTB form.

At the top:

Cola Detail -2

And way, way down at the bottom….

Cola Detail -3

Summarizing so far, if you can buy the spirit in the U.S., and it has received TTB Label approval in the past 15 years, it’s extremely likely that you can find the label image and all other required TTB information in the database. It may take you several tries to construct the right query – The TTB database is rife with misspellings and unexpected names. Looking for Combier? You’ll find some by searching for “Combier,” but use “Royal Combier” and you’ll find more. Something I learned the hard way when using the “Product Name” field: Use the “%” at the beginning and/or end of your term. The “%”is the wildcard character, meaning “match anything,” giving you a better shot at what you’re after.

Now that you’ve mastered digging up label approval for a particular bottle of interest, the obvious next step is hunting for treasures you didn’t know about. Learning about new releases before your friends and local bartenders is wonky fun! You may even find that your favorite brand has bottlings you weren’t even aware of. There are three main ways to organize your hunting:

  • Finding spirits from the same U.S. distillery
  • Finding imported spirits from the same importer
  • Finding spirits of a particular type, e.g. single malt Scotch whisky

Effective hunting in the TTB database requires some understanding how the TTB categorizes information.  Once you’ve successfully found one COLA of interest, it’s easy to take information from the COLA and use it in subsequent searches.

Let’s start with finding additional spirits in a product line. The trick is to use find the right value in the “PLANT REGISTRY/BASIC PERMIT/BREWER’S NO.” search field. This code uniquely identifies either a U.S. distillery or an importer. It will always be on a COLA approval. You plug this code into the aforementioned field and it and narrows your results to that particular distillery or importer.

Distillery Codes

Distillery codes are easily identified because they start with “DSP” (Distilled Spirits Plant). The format is

DSP-<state_code>-<number>

Here are the codes for a few well known and favorite distilleries of mine:

Just to keep things interesting, the TTB also holds a list of spirits producers and bottlers:

http://www.ttb.gov/foia/xls/frl-spirits-producers-and-bottlers.htm

However, the “PERMIT NUMBER” listed in this document don’t appear to work in the TTB COLA search. That would be too easy, you know?

Importer Codes

If a spirit is made outside of the U.S., it must have an importer, and each importer has a code as well. The code looks like :

<state_code>-I-<number>.”

It’s important to know that some importers have names wildly different than the brand(s) they import. Larger importers have very broad (read: glazed donut vodka) product lines. Also, brands often switch importers, just to keep you hopping.

A few importer codes to get you started:

  • CT-I-15074      Diageo America
  • NY-I-892          Remy Cointreau
  • FL-I-1363         Bacardi U.S.A.
  • CA-I-4520        Campari America
  • NY-I-1305        W.J. Deutsch & Sons (Pierre Ferrand, etc…)
  • NY-I-1727        MHW Ltd. (Angostura, Clement, Porton, Denizen
  • MD-I-15018     Team Spirits (Chairman’s Reserve, Fidencio)
  • TX-I-21088       Ekeko Distribution Inc.

You can find a complete list of importer codes here:

http://www.ttb.gov/foia/frl.shtml

There are so many importers that the list is broken into several pages. Just use the appropriate link under “Alcohol Importer Permit Lists.”

Spirits Codes

Let’s now say you’re interested in finding all COLAs for a particular category of spirit. As it turns out, every spirit sold in the U.S. has a three digit code, in theory agreed upon by the producer and the TTB. Here’s a list of all spirit codes:

https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/lookupProductClassTypeCode.do?action=search&display=all#search_results

Perusing the list, you’ll quickly learn that the codes are all over the map. There’s tons of seemingly dozens of hyper-specific codes (GIN – CHERRY FLAVORED, anyone?), but then there are also codes for “GIN,” “DISTLLED GIN,” “LONDON DRY DISTILLED GIN,” “LONDON DRY GIN,” and “OTHER GIN.” In contrast, all single malt scotch falls under a single code, 153: “SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY.” No matter whether it’s smoky Islay whisky, or a honey-toned Balvenie, they all get the same code: 153. Go figure.

The spirits codes are an absolute train wreck with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Almost as if assigned by someone with only the faintest awareness of spirits taxonomy. For a fun time, go find out where some of your favorite spirits are categorized. I’ve noticed that Jim Beam Red Stag has labels under both 641 (“WHISKY SPECIALTIES”) and 649 (“OTHER SPECIALTIES & PROPRIETARIES”). For an extra fun time, look through the spirits codes and check out codes 925 and 975 (“NEUTRAL SPIRITS – PETROLEUM”). I’m leaving it as an exercise for the reader to divine which products these are.

Generally speaking, the main categories of distilled spirits are found within the following ranges of codes:

  • Whiskey 109-199
  • Gin 200-299
  • Vodka 300 – 399
  • Rum 400-499
  • Brandy 500-599
  • Cordials (e.g. Curacao) 600
  • Bottled cocktails 700-799
  • Wine 800+
  • Beer 900-910
  • Tequila 977-982
  • Other spirits 920+

When you see “FB” at the end of the category, it means “foreign,” while a “USB” at the end of the category means it’s from the United States. When I go looking for newly released rums, I select everything between 400 and 499. My guess as to which category a rum is probably differs wildly from what the TTB has approved it as.

So that’s the basics of searching for COLA labels. The search process is painful, but there are goodies to be found and all sorts of rabbit holes to go down. I plan to check in on a few product categories on a periodic basis and share what I find in subsequent posts. Happy hunting!

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