Importing and selling spirits
- Marco van Hagen
- The basis
- 16 Aug 2023
- Edited 13 Feb 2023
- 11 min
- Managing and growing
When you import liquor and spirits and place them on the Dutch market, you need to take into account VAT, excise duty, product requirements, and product liability. If you sell spirits to consumers, you will also have to deal with the Alcohol Act. Here is everything you need to know if you plan to import and sell spirits.
Whisky, rum, cognac, liqueur, and arrack. Just a small selection of the many spirits you can find in the Netherlands. Spirits, also called liquor, are only categorised as such if they contain at least 15% alcohol at a temperature of 20 °C. If you import spirits from EU or non-EU countries and sell them to businesses or consumers, you will also have to follow other rules
Importing goods from EU countries
The Netherlands imported more than €1 billion worth of spirits in 2021 (commodity 2208), most of which came from within the EU (€590 million). Belgium heads the top 3 with €180 million, followed by Germany with €151 million, and France with €66 million in imports. Outside the EU, the United Kingdom takes top place with imports totalling €230 million (source ).
There is free movement of goods in the European Union (EU), so you can import cognac from France, limoncello from Italy, or brandy from Germany without having to declare the goods to Dutch Customs. You will not have to pay import duty, but the goods are subject to VAT and excise duty.
If you import spirits with your business, your supplier will charge you 0% VAT if you pass on your VAT identification (in Dutch). Next, you (in Dutch) 21% Dutch VAT on your purchase yourself and report it in your VAT return. You will usually be allowed to deduct it as input tax in the same return. Business to business imports from other EU countries are also called Intra-Community Acquisitions (ICA).
Sprits are excise goods and fall into the ‘miscellaneous alcoholic products’ category of the Dutch Tax Administration (‘Belastingdienst’). Excise duty is a national tax, which means that every EU member state can decide its excise duty rates itself. You pay excise duty in your home country on the amount of pure alcohol contained in the consignment you received.
You order twenty boxes of six 0.7-litre bottles of limoncello (commodity code 2208 70 10 00) from Italy. The alcohol content is 30%. This makes the amount of pure alcohol in the bottles: 20 x 6 x 0.7 x 0.3 = 25.2 : 100 = 0.252 hectolitres. The excise duty on limoncello is €16.86 per percent of pure alcohol by volume. In other words, you will have to pay 0.252 x 16.86 euros x 100 = €424.87 in excise duty for your limoncello.
There are 2 ways to receive excise goods:
1. Excise duty paid in EU country of origin
In some cases, your supplier will have already paid excise duty in their own country. For example, if they do not have a licence to deliver duty-suspended goods or if you do not have a licence to receive duty-suspended goods. Your supplier will then pass on the excise duty they paid to you. In this case, the goods are called ‘duty-paid goods’ and must come with a ‘Simplified Administrative Accompanying Document’. Your supplier will arrange for this document or you can arrange for it yourself when you pick up the shipment or have it picked up by a carrier.
There are 2 times at which you have to report excise goods:
- Before you receive the consignment, you have to notify customs that it is on its way via Dgr.Accijnsunit@douane.nl. With this notification, you guarantee that you will pay the Dutch excise duty. Customs calls this 'posting security for excise duty'. You can reclaim the foreign excise duty paid from the Tax Administration in your supplier's country.
- Within one business day of receiving your shipment, declare the Dutch excise duty payable via 'Mijn (in Dutch). You can log in with DigiD or eHerkenning. You pay Dutch excise duty based on this declaration.
If you reclaim the foreign excise duty paid, you must prove that the bottles of spirits entered the Netherlands and that Dutch excise duty was paid.
New procedure for 2023
As of 13 February 2023, new EU rules have entered into force on receiving excise goods from other EU countries. As of that date, the exporting company will need a Certified Consignor Permit, while the recipient will need a Certified Consignee Permit. Both the consignor and consignee are required to declare the shipment in EMCS. As of 14 July 2023, Dutch Customs' 'Mijn Douane' software is used for (in Dutch).
Through Dutch Customs you can download the:
2. Duty suspended
It is easier to receive duty-suspended goods, but you will need a permit because the Dutch Tax Administration will hold you liable for the excise duty. There are 3 different permits:
- Registered Consignee (in Dutch)
You need this permit if you regularly receive suspended-duty excise goods.
- Registered Consignee Permit (in Dutch)
This is the permit you need if you occasionally receive excise goods.
- Excise Warehouse (AGP, in Dutch)
You need this permit if you want to store bottles of spirits. There are minimum requirements you will have to meet, such as a minimum quantity of 5,000 litres. Excise Warehouse Licences are never granted to residential properties.
After you receive the spirits, report the shipment to Customs no later than the Friday in the next week. You can report shipments via 'Mijn (in Dutch) by signing via DigiD or eHerkenning.
Importing goods from non-EU countries
All spirits imported from outside the EU have to be declared to Dutch Customs. Your carrier or customs (in Dutch) will usually take care of this on your behalf, as well as advancing any import duties and VAT that may be due. You will always need an EORI (in Dutch) to deal with customs and import spirits with your business.
The import duty rate for spirits is almost always 0%, but you will have to pay VAT and excise duty.
Dutch Customs classifies goods with commodity codes, also known as HS codes or TARIC codes. You need this code to submit an import declaration. Different types of spirits belong in different classes. Most products have a 10-digit commodity code, with the first 4 digits for spirits being 2208. The next 6 digits distinguish between different types of spirits. And there may even be further subdivisions within a single family of spirits. Below are 3 examples of bottles of whisky in bottles of less than 2 litres:
- Bourbon; 2208 30 11 00
- Single grain Scotch Whisky; 2208 30 61 00
- Blended Malt Scotch Whisky; 2208 30 41 00
All commodity codes can be found in the Tariff of Dutch Customs. You also need commodity codes to figure out which product requirements the imported spirits you sell in the Netherlands will have to meet.
When you import products into the Netherlands, you pay Dutch import VAT (21%). If you are an entrepreneur liable for VAT, you may deduct this VAT in your VAT return. You usually file a VAT return in the first few weeks after the end of a quarter, so you will effectively have to advance the VAT and reclaim it later.
If you regularly import goods from non-EU countries, you can apply for an article 23 (in Dutch) from the Tax Administration to avoid having to pay VAT at the time of import. Instead, you can report it in your regular VAT return, and effectively take on a VAT debt in your records before deducting it as input tax. On balance, you will not have to pay any VAT, but you will have to charge VAT when you sell spirits in the Netherlands.
You pay excise duty to Dutch Customs. After releasing your imports, you will receive an 'invitation to pay' with the VAT and excise duty amounts. As with you can receive duty-suspended excise goods.
To receive duty-suspended goods, you need a Registered Consignor (in Dutch) and an Excise Warehouse Licence (in Dutch). As a registered consignor, you are allowed to transport duty-suspended goods to your AGP. With this permit, customs is assured that they can claim excise duty from you, even if something goes wrong during transport, such as loss or theft of or damage to the goods.
You have successfully imported your spirits. Now it is time to start selling them. Business to business sales and sales to consumers are subject to different rules.
Sales to businesses
For businesses, create an invoice with VAT and calculate excise duty. Make sure to provide an 'origin document' such as an invoice or proof of transport.
You can move excise goods in suspension of (in Dutch) provided both you and your customer have the required permit. You can check the validity of excise permits in the SEED . You will also have to submit an electronic administrative document (e-AD) in the Excise Movement and Control System . Or draw up a Simplified Administrative Accompanying if you are not using EMCS.
Sales to consumers
If you sell directly to consumers, the rules of the Alcohol (in Dutch) apply. Without an alcohol , you are not allowed to sell spirits to consumers. To qualify for an alcohol licence, you must be at least 18 years old and hold an SHV Certificate for Social Hygiene. On top of that, your premises have to meet specific facility (in Dutch).
Selling spirits from your home is prohibited. The premises from which you sell spirits are subject to the Alcohol Act and municipal requirements, which are laid out in zoning . You are only allowed to live and practice a profession in residential areas, for instance, which means you cannot open a shop selling spirits there.
Selling goods to consumers from an online shop is called ‘distance selling’. You need an alcohol licence to sell spirits, and you will also have to deal with VAT and excise duty. If your customer lives in the Netherlands, calculate Dutch VAT and pay the Dutch excise duty.
If your customer lives in another EU country, use the applicable VAT rate for the destination country. There is no minimum threshold amount for your turnover for excise goods, as is the case for all other goods. Apply for a VAT number in the other member state and pay the VAT and excise duty there. The VAT rules for e-commerce in the EU also allow you to remit foreign VAT through the One Stop Shop (OSS) system. You can also choose to work with a tax representative who remits local VAT and excise duties on your behalf. Some carriers or freight forwarders provide fiscal representation services. You are allowed to reclaim excise duty you paid in the Netherlands. You also have to provide a document of origin, such as a waybill or invoice.
This article explains how to avoid paying double excise (in Dutch) when exporting goods.
If your customer lives outside the EU, file an export with Dutch Customs and charge 0% VAT on your invoice. You will be allowed to reclaim paid excise duties. Do pay close attention to the rules in the destination country, as an import declaration will have to be submitted locally. Under the DDP Incoterms® rules, you are responsible for submitting that declaration, paying import duties, VAT, and excise duties. You can always choose to outsource this work to a tax representative. Keep in mind that they will charge a fee for their services.
Consumers must be 18 years old to purchase spirits under Article 20 of the Alcohol (in Dutch). It is easier to check a customer’s age in a physical shop than in an online store. Delivery companies may verify your customer’s for you, but as the seller, you remain responsible and liable. For every violation, you risk a fine of at least €1,360. If you sell products in other EU member states, make sure to check the local rules.
The (in Dutch) by the Dutch Foundation for the Responsible Use of Alcohol (STIVA) sets out rules for alcohol advertising. For example, you are not allowed to claim that drinking alcohol will make you healthier or improve athletic performance. The Alcohol Code was created by importers and producers of alcoholic beverages and is not optional. For every violation, you risk a (in Dutch) of at least €50,000.
Both the European and the Dutch government have set product requirements for spirits, regulating labels, contents, and names. In the Netherlands, the following acts and decrees apply:
- Foodstuff information (Commodities Act) (in Dutch)
- Pre-packaging quantity (Commodities Act) (in Dutch)
Labels provide information about the contents of a bottle. They also provide a way for manufacturers to protect their products and company against unfair competition. Sector organisation (in Dutch) has an overview of all labelling requirements.
There are fixed rules for the nominal quantities of the of bottles of spirits. These nominal quantities are: 100 ml, 200 ml, 350 ml, 500 ml, 700 ml, 1000 ml, 1500 ml, 1750 ml, and 2000 ml. All other quantities are banned.
So is it whisky or whiskey? Legally speaking, both are allowed. Whiskies have to meet the following requirements:
- Whisky must be distilled from malted grains.
- Whisky must have a minimum alcohol percentage of 40%.
- You are not allowed to add extra alcohol to the alcohol produced by the distillation of the malted grains.
- You may only colour whisky with caramel.
- You may not add any sweeteners or flavours, except caramel.
- The term 'single malt' may be used only for whisky that has been distilled at a single distillery.
Each spirit has its own rules, as laid down in Regulation (EU) .
Protected geographical indications
Whisky may only be sold as ‘Scotch whisky’ if it was produced on Scottish territory. Similar rules apply to more distilled beverages. Spirits have a 'protected geographical indication'. The EU has protected European .
Beverages from outside the EU listed in the EU’s eAmbrosia Geographical Indication are also protected. ‘Tequila’ was included in this register in 2019. You can prove that your spirits are of Mexican origin with a Mexican Certificate of .
The Access2Markets of the European Commission provides a comprehensive summary of product requirements. The eAmbrosia Register also provides information on the requirements for different types of spirits. Sector organisation (in Dutch) has also drawn up guidance on product legislation.
If you import spirits from countries outside the European Economic Area (EEA, in , you are liable for damage and injuries caused by a defect in these products. Legally speaking, you are considered the producer, so make sure that your products are fully compliant with all requirements and regulations. Even if a producer in the EEA produces branded private label spirits or white label spirits, you are liable as the importer.
Suppose you want to import a batch of Bacardi rum from Russia. There is already an official importer for this rum and the brand name is registered in the EEA. This means that you are not allowed to import the rum unless the producer gives you permission to do so. Usually, producers will opt against this, as they will probably have an exclusive distribution contract with the current importer.
Importing the same spirits from an EEA country, however, is allowed. If branded products have previously been placed on the EEA market by an official manufacturer or importer, they can be traded freely within the EEA as a permissible form of parallel .
Wherever there is money to be made selling products, you can rest assured that there will be counterfeit products as well. In 2016, the EU Intellectual Property Office calculated that the spirits industry lost €739 million in direct sales from 2010-2015 due to counterfeit spirits. Not only do counterfeit products come at a heavy financial cost for producers, but they are also of inferior quality and may even result in injury or death. If this were to happen, the importer would be liable. It is illegal and punishable to import and trade counterfeit goods.
Preventing counterfeit goods
It can be very difficult to recognise whether a product is authentic or counterfeit. But extremely low prices are a good indicator. If the price appears too good to be true, trust your gut feeling. Try to mitigate risks wherever you can and vet your business partners.