This is a public service post. I am not an airline employee. I do not work for US Customs. I have not searched with an unrelenting fervor into all the rules and regulations on bringing bottles of booze back into the US from abroad. But I know enough to be dangerous and have several bottle-laden trips behind me so I have a bit of experience. Experience does NOT equal expertise so please do not take this as gospel.
When I post a bunch of bottle shots after a trip to Oaxaca, I frequently get asked how I was able to bring back that much mezcal (and I get asked even more frequently if I will share!). So here is a quick take on the way I see it.
What the Airlines Say
I think this is the trickiest piece of the puzzle, because it turns out that the airlines are more restrictive than US Customs. Living in NYC, I usually fly United through Houston to Oaxaca. Going through Houston gives me the added benefit of a stop at Papasito’s in the Houston airport – it’s mandatory if you have time! Looking into the United Airlines baggage policy, you will find that you can bring in 5 liters per person. 5 liters is equal to 6.67 typically sized bottles of 750 ml each. In other words, it rounds down to 6 bottles per person. That’s it. That’s their policy. 6 bottles. But I just brought back about 4 times that! How?
Well, the good news is that it does not appear to be the United Airlines employees’ responsibility to enforce that – at least not in Oaxaca. I had two suitcases this last trip – one was very heavy and one less so. The max limit on weight per bag is 23 Kilos, about 50 pounds. The counter agents told me they can give you leeway up to 25 kilos, or 55 pounds. Above that, you will pay a lot for excess weight (about $100 for every 5 lb overage). I was right at the 25 kilo leeway zone on one, and the other was probably 40 lbs. Two dense bags of 55 and 40 pounds is a lot of luggage for one person so I expected a few questions. To my now warmed mezcal heart, there were none! They checked the bags and on I went.
Now if someone from United Airlines is reading this, let’s not make a big deal out of it. The 5 liter limit seems arbitrary and unnecessary in the first place. If there is a reason, please let us know. We are not breaking any laws, US Customs or otherwise. The materials are not hazardous (unless CONSUMED in vast quantities). We are not bringing these back for commercial purposes. We are just mezcal geeks who love this shit and want to bring back as much of the stuff as possible that we cannot get in the US. That’s it. Nothing untoward.
That all said, I don’t think you want to be bragging to the people at the ticket counter about how much mezcal you scored! And my experience was with United. My friends Tom and Brenda recently came back from Oaxaca on AeroMexico and they got nailed. They were told they could only check 6 bottles PER BAG, and they actually had to give up 5 bottles. Imagine their pain! They had already checked the bags and they came and found them at the gate and told them them about the 6 per bag limit. Different from United Airlines where their website says 6 bottles PER PERSON. But United also did not come track me down at the gate, and one of my bags probably had 12 bottles of 750 ml (again, they never asked me about the weighty contents).
A mezcalero who regularly brings large quantities of mezcal to the US for tradeshows, etc told me that he is occasionally asked how many bottles he has in his very heavy luggage, and his response is always “4 bottles”. That’s his story and he is sticking with it. And it works. They don’t question it.
Bottom line: different airlines have different policies and different levels of enforcement. A number of us have had different experiences with different airlines so your experience may vary.
What US Customs Says
Most people think they can only bring back 1 or 2 bottles through US Customs. Not true. From the US Customs and Border Protection website:
“There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the U.S. for personal use, however, large quantities might raise the suspicion that the importation is for commercial purposes, and a CBP officer could require the importer to obtain an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) import license (which is required for all commercial importations) before releasing it. A general rule of thumb is that 1 case of alcohol is a personal use quantity – although travelers are still subject to state restrictions which may allow less.”
So you can bring back as much as you want as long as you declare it! The only catch is you are likely to have to pay tax above the 1 bottle limit. But note the “state restrictions” comment. I have only come through customs in Houston and if you go to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission website, it says you can only bring in 1 gallon of distilled spirits. It seems this is not being enforced by the US Customs people in Houston. Right on my people! I have not looked into what other states say and have no idea if they enforce any limits. Maybe you know?
When I came through recently they asked me no questions and I went right through. My buddy Mario was pulled over and had a few less bottles than me (he could not keep up!) and he paid a total tax of $19. That’s it. No issue with the quantity he had.
So it appears US Customs has no issue with quantity as long as you will pay the tax (again with the caveat that some US states may enforce things differently).
The final piece of this public service announcement contains a few packing tips:
- Take an empty suitcase. If you are really planning on loading up, it’s a pretty good idea to take an empty suitcase down there filled with packing tape, bubble wrap and WINE SKINS.
- Buy Wine Skins. These things are fantastic! You can buy them at the Container Store or Amazon. They are wine-bottle shaped bubble wraps – sleak and compact yet highly protective. They will handle almost any-shaped mezcal bottle that you come across. The bubble wrap and packing tape are handy if you run out of Wine Skins or for smaller bottles.
- Saran Wrap your bags. When you are leaving, at the Oaxaca airport, there is a guy there with one of those Saran Wrap machines (not sure what else to call it) where they wrap your bag about 30 times with a thin plastic cellophane. As your bag is likely to be heavy, this will help the structural integrity of the bag and keep everything nice and tight. It costs about $15 per bag, but I think it is a good investment.
I am sure I am forgetting a few other things, but for now, that’s all I’ve got. Remember this is based on a handful of experiences and is not gospel. So please no nasty hate mail if you follow this advice and you have to give up bottles. But again, this is all perfectly legal and not even perfectly legal with a wink of an eye. The US government says you can bring back as much as you want. So try it, or if you have an experience to share, reply to this post. Good luck in your mezcal adventures, and as always, drink mezcal!