Are Bitters Considered to be alcohol?
Even though bitters may contain alcohol, it is not considered an alcoholic beverage on its own. Bitters in the USA is classified as a non-beverage by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which means it’s regulated as a food item that contains alcohol.
When we started the Bitters Club, our first step was to figure out what bitters were classified as from a regulatory perspective. Without knowing how it was regulated, it would have been difficult to get the right permits and business licenses. For this post we will only briefly cover alcohol classification and not go into any detail on the additional regulations from the FDA. We will cover that topic in a future post. We will also cover non-alcoholic bitters in a future post.
TTB Alcohol Classification
Any and all alcoholic based products that are manufactured, imported, exported and sold in the US, are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau or TTB for short.
There are two main categories of alcohol that the TTB regulates, Beverage Alcohol and Industrial Alcohol. The table below depicts a non-exhausted list of example products in each category.
The Beverage Alcohol category covers anything that contains alcohol and that you can drink straight out of the bottle, can or glass right after it was manufactured. Each category of beverage alcohol has specific guidelines on how much alcohol they can contain. If you are interested in learning more about beverage alcohol or have specific questions, take a look at the TTB’s FAQ page via the link below.
TTB FAQ link: https://www.ttb.gov/faqs/alcohol_faqs.shtml#general
The Industrial Alcohol category, which is also called Non-Beverage Alcohol, covers any other commercial use of alcohol. When you make bitters according to the TTB’s guidelines and want to sell it to the public, it will fall under this category as a non-beverage product.
What is a Non-Beverage Product?
When a company uses alcohol to produce or manufacture things like food, flavor extracts, medicine, perfume or fuel they have to submit a formula and often a sample of their product to the Non-Beverage Products Laboratory of the TTB. The lab then reviews the formula and tests the sample to deem it unfit for beverage purposes. If the formula is approved, the manufacturer can then submit a claim on the distilled spirits excise tax they paid when buying the alcohol.
You can find more information about drawback alcohol claims here: https://www.ttb.gov/ssd/nonbeverage_drawback_alcohol.shtml
What makes a Product Unfit for beverage purposes?
When submitting a bitters formula to the TTB, they evaluate the levels of all the ingredients used in the product. The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) GRAS™provide guidelines on the average maximum use levels for flavor extracts or chemicals that can be used to make a product unfit. There are specific guidelines on how much of an ingredient you need to add in order to deem your product unfit for beverage purposes. Most bitters on the market will contain at least one or two ingredients that are over the max use level. There is also a list of banned ingredients that you can't add to ensure your product is still safe for human consumption. This is the part where the FDA starts their regulation on bitters as a food product.
To learn more about what makes a product unfit follow this link: https://www.ttb.gov/ssd/dbmenu3sub1.shtml
Even though bitters may contain alcohol, it is considered to be a non-beverage product that is unfit for beverage purposes on its own. On paper bitters are much closer to pure vanilla or orange extract, than whiskey, vodka or beer. That’s why we always tell people that bitters are nothing more than a liquid spice you add to cocktails.
If you would like to learn more about the regulations around bitters or have any other questions, comment below or contact us directly. We will be happy to help.
Cheers - The Bitters Club Team!
@Jimmy A – Inorder to sell homemade bitters to a bar, you will need to become a real business, register your formula with the TTB and follow food safety and FDA regulations. Selling to a business is no different than selling to consumers.
@ Meredith – Even though bitters contain alcohol, adding a couple of drops to a drink won’t get anyone drunk. In general we don’t recommend giving minors anything alcohol related, but a couple drops will help to flavor things up a bit.
Hello, I live in California (San Diego) and I am interested in selling my homemade bitters to a bar that wants to buy them. Could you advise me on the regulations or how to sell homemade bitters to a bar? Or, are bitters considered a food (cottage food business) in that case? Thanks.
Hi! Just wondering if you can serve bitters to minors if they are used to enhance a drink like lemonade?