As if the smoking ban and licensing changes haven't given pubs enough to worry about, licensees also have to keep an eye on their spirits packaging to make sure they stay within the law.
Duty stamps became compulsory on all bottles of spirits sold in to the UK market from October 1 this year. Any spirits sold from bottles bought after that date will have to carry the stamps from 1 January 2007, although it will still be possible to sell from bottles that were duty-paid before then. Sellers of bottles without a stamp after that date will be required to have a purchase invoice to show that duty was paid on the goods before 1 October this year. As HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) points out, businesses should have those anyway.
Failure to comply could land a licensee with a fine amounting to £5,000 and the court could also prohibit the sale of alcohol from their premises for up to six months.
Focus on implementation
HMRC spokesman Simon Oliver says: "We wouldn't like to give the impression that from 1 October we'll have teams of people out there looking for unstamped stick -at the moment we are concentrating on educating people to comply and making them aware of the rules."
The stamps have been introduced by HMRC as a safeguard against duty fraud, particularly diversion of goods destined for export on to the UK market to avoid UK duty. The new procedure provides a useful extra check for trading standards officers investigating substitution, because bottles brought back from the continent by unscrupulous licenses for resale in their pubs won't display stamps.
Stamps can be freestanding and attached to the bottle, or become integrated into the product's own label design.
The proposal initially met with hostility from spirits manufacturers concerned about scheme implementation costs and its extra bureaucratic burden.
Scotch Whisky Association public affairs manager David Williamson says the industry had been focused on implementation rather than opposition since it became apparent that the scheme would go ahead: "We've been working with HMRC to ensure that when it came in it would be workable and have an effect," he says.
As far as producers are concerned, Williamson notes that the scheme has avoided the kind of late rush towards implementation that caused such problems for pubs in the new licensing regime.
Maxxium UK marketing controller Phil McLaughlin says: "Things appear to be reasonably good, from our perspective. We had a number of customers looking for stamps to be available early to soften the impact and we have been able to respond to that. There seems to be a high level of determination [in the trade] to sell through."
One possible area of confusion for licensees is that not everything categorised in the spirits category has to carry the stamps - they apply to spirits with at least 30% abv, which means that licensees shouldn't waste time looking for them on bottles of light spirits and liqueurs such as Malibu and Baileys.
And stamps are only mandatory on bottles of 35cl or bigger, so if licencees do have a quirky trade in miniatures, these are exempt.