When the weather gets cold, Downeast Cider House in East Boston releases a winter brew that’s a little heavier, spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, and has an “extra kick” in the form of a 6.5 percent alcohol level — just slightly more than the company’s crisp original cider, which clocks in at 5.1 percent.
But when it comes to taxes, the difference between the two drinks is huge: Distributors pay 3 cents for every gallon of Downeast Cider’s original blend, but 70 cents a gallon for the Winter Blend.
The difference? An arcane Massachusetts law that classifies any drink made of fermented fruit with more than 6 percent alcohol as sparkling wine, a category that’s subject to much higher taxes than cider with 3 to 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
“I can’t see any practical justification for these laws,” said Downeast cofounder Ross Brockman.
Last week, a task force appointed by State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg to suggest reforms to the state’s decade-old alcohol rules agreed with Brockman. Among dozens of proposals the group released in late December is one that would expand the definition of hard cider to include those containing up to 8.5 percent alcohol.
The change, which needs legislative approval to take effect, would bring Massachusetts in line with the federal government’s classification of cider. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in January raised the federal ABV limit on ciders to 8.5 percent. As in Massachusetts, going above the federal limit triggers a much higher tax charged to champagne and similar drinks.
Other states have also debated simplifying their complex alcohol tax categories. In Pennsylvania, policy makers in 2016 raised the state’s limit on alcohol in cider to 8.5 percent, after cider makers complained the previous threshold of 5.5 percent was forcing them to dilute their products.
The task force in Massachusetts, comprised of seven attorneys and state officials, is also recommending a broad increase in alcohol excise taxes: to 16 cents a gallon on beer, from 11 cents; to 82 cents a gallon on wine, from 55 cents; and to $6.07 a gallon on hard liquor, from $4.05.Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.