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At Sigma-Aldrich I can buy one liter of unadulterated ethanol for just 26.60 EUR. This ethanol contains no additives and is pure enough for analytical purposes. Its made by fermenting grain or sugarcane. The solution contains 95.5% ethanol.

However, when I try to buy the same amount of consumer grade ethanol, then I suddenly have to pay 73.63 EUR because of excise duties. This is strange because the research grade ethanol from Merck is about as pure as the consumer grade one.

In the EU pure ethanol is only exempt from excise duties when it is denatured in some way but the ethanol sold by Merck / Sigma-Aldrich doesn't seem to be denatured in any way. It is not marketed as a biofuel either. Its an ethanol solution that's nearly as pure as the consumer grade ethanol but it somehow is still exempt from excise duties. Why is that?

EDIT:

Apparently the website can show different prices depending on the country you live in. Here's a screenshot of the prices I'm seeing. I live in the Netherlands.

enter image description here

Here's the price at checkout. Some tax is added but I don't think its excise duty related. The total price is still far lower then the price you pay for consumer grade ethanol.

enter image description here

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    And are you sure the EUR 73.63 is entirely due to taxes, not just a cosmetic company who thinks they can get away with a high price because their customers don't know any better? (Plus, it comes in a cool retro glass bottle with a cork - that alone probably adds another EUR 20.) Aug 11, 2023 at 1:10
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    Can you actually get all the way to checkout with the EUR 26 price? Conceivably taxes are added later. Or perhaps it assumes that you are an organization with some kind of tax exemption, and will refuse to sell if you can't prove that you are. Aug 11, 2023 at 1:14
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    I tried selecting Netherlands. When I go to check out, it adds another EUR 14 for taxes and EUR 40 for shipping (!), but also has a note that says "requires compliance review before shipping". Maybe that is when they would add duties if you are not exempt. Aug 11, 2023 at 1:17
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    @Trish Sigma Aldrich hold EU stock. That shipping could be for hazardous goods within the EU
    – Chris H
    Aug 11, 2023 at 10:21
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    @ChrisH that too - Shipping chemicals in non neglictible amounts is super costly.
    – Trish
    Aug 11, 2023 at 11:43

2 Answers 2

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Medical or Lab Alcohol are taxed differently

For the excise tax, some alcohols are not counted, as the government (Customs Administration of the Netherlands, Ministry of Finance) themselves say:

Excise goods

Under certain conditions, you can be exempted from excise duty. Examples include:

  • ethyl alcohol not intended for internal use by humans
  • ethyl alcohol used for manufacturing medicines

Those two exceptions cover all laboratory alcohol, including non-denatured spirits.

Also, do note the little yellow checkmark at the end of the shopping item: to buy (and import) that alcohol for the reduced tax rate, you need to prove to the seller, that you buy it for those excise-tax-exempt reasons such as laboratory work and not to create, for example, your own Limoncello by soaking lemon peel in it.

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    In the UK, the exemption certificates come form the government and are hard to get. It was a big problem for small distillers wanting to contribute to the need for sanitising alcohol during covid
    – Chris H
    Aug 11, 2023 at 10:27
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    Same in Germany. In my city, there are two small artisanal gin manufacturers. What they ended up doing was to cooperate with a pharmacist who did have the necessary licenses and "rent out" their distillery to them for a symbolic fee. Aug 11, 2023 at 12:07
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    In the US, for institutions that have a Tax-free Alcohol permit issued by the Department of the Treasury, non-denatured ethanol brings ordering paperwork, secure storage, logbooks, audits, etc., so even if you have a permit, it's strongly encouraged to use denatured alcohol whenever possible.
    – user71659
    Aug 13, 2023 at 0:41
  • Another standard example of differential taxation based on use is fuel. Heating fuel is (roughly) the same as diesel fuel (for car use). In the EU, the main difference between the two is the addition of fuel dye with the sole purpose of deterring and/or detecting tax evasion.
    – KFK
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:17
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Because there’s an exemption

Which requires denaturing.

But there’s also an exemption to the exemption for when denaturing is not appropriate. Such as for laboratory use.

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  • €26/liter is still expensive though. I can buy a liter of denaturized alcohol with 95% vol for only about €2.50.
    – PMF
    Aug 11, 2023 at 6:25
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    @PMF that is Lab Grade Non-Denatured Alcohol, for which you need to need to prove Compliance that you don't use it for consumption to buy it.
    – Trish
    Aug 11, 2023 at 8:57
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    Also @PMF analytical grades are, in a sense, purer for the same percentage. That sense is that we know/control what the impurities are. This is probably 95.5% ethanol, ~4.4% water, and <<0.1% other alcohols. catering 95% is probably 95% ethanol, 4% water, and 1% unknown (though perhaps with a limit on the methanol as it's toxic). Unknown stuff is bad in analytical work.
    – Chris H
    Aug 11, 2023 at 10:25
  • @ChrisH And it's Sigma-Aldritch, they tend to be one of the most expensive suppliers of laboratory chemicals. Aug 11, 2023 at 19:19
  • @Crazymoomin I normally used Fischer in my last role. Not my problem these days!
    – Chris H
    Aug 11, 2023 at 20:00

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