Once upon a time, Christmas meant lots of Anton Berg chocolates, Lindt & Sprungli chocolates, lots with alcohol in them all from the confectionery department of a well-known West End store.

In particular, Lindt made stengeli (Swiss German for baton) which were little hollow chocolate batons, with a crystallised inner case and kirsch brandy inside them.   They are delicious, whether you crunch them, or bite the end off and drink the brandy first.   The also do them with Apricot brandy, Pear Willems etc.

Every Xmas we would buy stengeli until….

Circa 2015, when there were none in the shop on Oxford Street.  I checked the internet and they were not on there either.  They were not even on the Lindt & Sprungli UK website! What happened to the stengeli?

A few months later, I was in Zurich and popped into a Co-op and there were hundreds of stengeli.    So, they still existed, but why were they no longer available in the UK?

After some detective work I discovered that the Grinch worked at HMRC.   (You can’t miss him, he is tall, skinny, hairy but most noticeable of all, bright green).   It appears that the Grinch had persuaded Parliamentary Counsel and Ministers (assuming they read their red boxes to the end every night), to amend the definition of what constitutes a container of spirits to include chocolate shaped batons with free flowing liquor inside them, which of course meant stengeli and further, make them ineligible for the new alcohol ingredients relief (Finance Act 2015, s.4) which was limited to alcoholic content in solid or semi solid foods of below 8.5 litres of alcohol per 100kg of solid.  A pack of 250g stengeli is 30% kirsch brandy.  Assuming brandy has the same density as water (well they both mix together)  then a 250g packet contains 75g = 75cc = 75ml of brandy (yes a cc (cubic centimetre) and a ml (millilitre) are the same thing and if that blows your mind, you had better have a duty paid brandy). Four packets, i.e. 1kg, would contain 300ml.  There is 75cl, i.e. 750ml, in a normal unopened bottle of wine.   100kg of stengeli (400 packets) therefore has 75 litres of brandy in it.   Well over 8.5 litres.

The duty on brandy is £28.74 per litre.  That is £8.62 per 250g pack.  In Switzerland, they sell in the Co-op for CHF15.95 which at the time of writing is £12.44.  We have now found, but not from anyone you would recognise a regular retailer of chocolates, stengeli for sale for UK delivery.  How much?    £22.49 for a 125g pack; £35 for a 250g pack.

Are Lindt & Sprungli going to enter the excise duty business, with all its regulation etc., strict control procedures, stamps and processes for just one particular product in its range in one particular puritanical stingy country?   Of course not.  To be clear, we are the only European country who do this.

Even if Lindt did sell them in the UK, or sold them to a retailer, at £28.74 per litre of spirit, it would make the stengeli overly expensive (see above) and indeed could create stengeli smugglers!  Watch the wall my darling as the gentlemen (with their stengeli) go by.

Did we used to see alcoholics sitting on benches biting the ends off stengeli getting drunk on the contents?  Is this a major public health issue?  Headline, “NHS expresses concern at huge number of people being admitted having consumed too many stengeli”.

Or was it a cheap shot (pun intended) at getting some extra pennies which persuaded the then Exchequer Secretary and HM Treasury?  If so, the joke is on them, because now no one imports them, so the excise duty collection is nil.

Therefore, revenue raising was not the answer.

Unfair competition.  Well, if other spirits manufacturers wish to use mini chocolate cases, they can.  But no one is seriously suggesting that people import stengeli for the booze alone?

No, there is only one answer.  It must be the Grinch.  There is no other logical explanation.

  • No distortion of competition
  • No health risk
  • No revenue being lost (previous revenue nil but lots of chocolates – current revenue nil as not imported).

Perhaps HMRC can explain?

The Grinch is still there.  I wonder what other evil, killjoy, jobsworth, pointless piece of miserableness that small-minded creature will come up with next?   VAT on Cornish pasties?  [Been done and undone Ed.]

Bah humbug to the GrincHMRC.[i]

Merry Christmas to everyone else.

December 2019

[i] With acknowledgement to Dr Seuss.

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