Let’s free the antique alcohol market

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It seems like every month, I get an email or two from strangers asking me the same question. They read something like this: “Hi. My elderly father died, and when I was cleaning out his house to get it ready for sale, I found some very old looking bottles. Some of them are not open. Are they worth anything?”

Unfortunately, my response never is especially encouraging. There is, I inform them, no licit secondhand market for alcoholic beverages, for the most part. So, I cannot tell you what a bottle of Old Fitzgerald Bourbon from 1970 or a six-pack of Thomas Hardy Ale from 1995 would sell for. Sure, if you had a large and opulent collection of antique beverages, you might be able to get it assessed and sold by an auction house. But even for those lucky souls, it is a painstaking and time-consuming process.

It is a confounding situation, which means, of course, it was created by government. People long have been free to sell their stuff. One need only visit an antique shop or a Goodwill store. There is a market for nearly everything, whether old baseball cards, DVDs and music cassette tapes, or jewelry, antique knives or eye glasses. The garage sale is an American tradition.

Yet various laws forbid consumers from reselling a previously purchased alcoholic beverage, even if it has not been opened. (One takes little comfort in learning that it is OK to sell empty beverage bottles.) You ask: “I have this old, unopened bottle of gin. It has value. Why can I not sell it to someone? Why am I obliged to pour it down the drain?” The most commonly advanced arguments against the resale of drinks are: brand protection, fraud and consumer safety. So, for example, Buffalo Trace Distillery, which makes some marvelous whiskeys, stated this past year:

Our strong recommendation is not to buy our whiskeys on the ‘secondary’ market, aside from the fact that it is illegal in most states, there is also no guarantee about what you might be buying from a product provenance standpoint. Sadly, we see mounting evidence in other parts of the world around counterfeit spirits. We do not want to see any customer of ours duped in the secondary market nor having to pay exorbitant prices. We are continuing our efforts to shut down the illegal ‘secondary’ market for our whiskeys.

While these concerns are understandable, they are not wholly persuasive. Fraud? Anyone – competent or not— can advertise themselves as a handyman for hire on sites like TaskRabbit.com. Anyone can sell what they believe to be a first edition Hemingway novel on Amazon.com. Consumer safety? One can buy old power tools that may or may not be safe to use. People have been selling used motorcycles and powerboats via classified ads for decades. In the resale market, products with warranties and guarantees can be found, but caveat emptor is the norm. Brand protection? Absent massive counterfeiting, no brand is going to suffer discernable harm if drinks aficionados are selling their old bottles to one another.

Which they already are, and this reality is the biggest objection to the current drinks resale bans. Black markets and exchanges already have cropped up. For a time, there were various Facebook pages where folks sold old and rare Bourbons to one another. These pages recently were shut down, but the exchanges will pop up elsewhere. The Internet makes it very easy for owners of old bottles to locate buyers, and there is no way to police all of it. Heck, I could easily purchase the various old hooches that people email me about. (I don’t.)

From a libertarian perspective, individuals should be free to resell alcoholic beverages without any sorts of restrictions. The market, over time, will sort out the good sellers from the bad (rather like the used goods markets on Amazon.com, eBay.com and the like.) However, to satisfy concerns about fraud, safety and counterfeiting, one might establish a system like that which exists for gun sales. Only licensed purchasers could buy secondhand drinks, and they then could sell them to the public. Purchasers would be required to record their inventories and make them available to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Sales could even be taxed, as auction house sales of old drinks are.

Either way, the sensible path forward is to make the resale of beers, spirits and wines legal. Continuing to ban the resale of drinks will only ensure that the black market continues.

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