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ABV in the HMR: Irish Creme vs. Irish Whiskey

Posted on 3/9/2023 by Nick Waldron and Roger Marks

Some alcoholic beverages are regulated as hazardous materials during transportation because, like other alcohols, the drinks can pose enough of a fire hazard to fit the bill as a Class 3 flammable liquid under the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR).

Those regulations categorize most Class 3 hazardous materials—e.g., solvents, chemicals, or petroleum products—into packing groups (PG) based on scientific testing for flash point and/or boiling point. Alcoholic beverages,  meanwhile, can be sorted into packing groups using a different characteristic—the percent alcohol-by-volume or ABV.

To celebrate St. Patrick's Day, let's see how this works by comparing two popular "holiday" drinks—Irish Creme and Irish Whiskey. 

ABV in the HMR: Irish Creme vs. Irish Whiskey

PG & ABV (Packing Group & Alcohol-by-volume)

One of the HMR's special provisions tells us that: 

"(24) Alcoholic beverages containing more than 70 percent alcohol by volume must be transported as materials in Packing Group II. Alcoholic beverages containing more than 24 percent but not more than 70 percent alcohol by volume must be transported as materials in Packing Group III."

Here it is in chart form:

Alcohol by volume % (ABV) Hazard Class, Packing Group
> 70%  3, PG II
> 24% but < 70% 3, PG III


*For the unfamiliar and the under 21, a typical light beer contains about 4% ABV

The ABV shown on a popular brand of "Irish creme" beverage is 17%—nowhere near the threshold for regulation as a flammable liquid. A leading Irish whiskey brand contains about 40% alcohol by volume, on the other hand, placing it squarely in the range of a Packing Group III flammable liquid for transportation purposes—at least according to the one special provision above. 

But can one special provision tell us the whole story? If something about this feels strange to you, it's not the whiskey talking.

Hang on a minute…

If whiskey is a flammable liquid, after all, where are the red Class 3 labels on the boxes? Where are the red Class 3 placards on the trucks that haul whiskey by the pallet load? Would a hazmat Incident Report be required if a truck overturns and soaks a highway in liquor?

In many cases, the answer is no. That's because certain alcoholic beverages qualify for additional relief provided by one of many exceptions related to Class 3 flammable liquids (listed 49 CFR Part 173.150).

Check it out:  

(d) Alcoholic beverages.

(1) An alcoholic beverage (wine and distilled spirits as defined in 27 CFR 4.10 and 5.11), when transported via motor vehicle, vessel, or rail, is not subject to the requirements of this subchapter if the alcoholic beverage:

(i) Contains 24 percent or less alcohol by volume;

(ii) Is contained in an inner packaging of 5 L (1.3 gallons) or less; or

(iii) Is a Packing Group III alcoholic beverage contained in a packaging 250 liters (66 gallons) or less;

The rules above apply to transportation by highway. The requirements for air shipments are more complicated under both US rules and the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR).

In English, 173.150(d)(1)(ii) states that when you ship Irish whiskey in small inner packagings (like the bottles it's sold in), the shipment is not subject to the requirements of the HMR.

Irish whiskey can sometimes be regulated as a Class 3 flammable liquid. Assuming a 40% ABV whiskey is legally considered "distilled spirits" per the ATF regulations referenced in paragraph (d)(1), the shipment would be fully regulated by US DOT if offered in a packaging or inner packagings larger than what's excepted.

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Tags: alcohol, hazardous materials, hazmat shipping, holiday

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