Montreal Gazette: Artisanal distillers shouldn’t be left out of Quebec’s liquor-sale liberalization

Think of a spirit made in Quebec — one of the first to pop in your mind will likely be PUR Vodka, Ungava Gin, or maybe even Piger Henricus gin. These small Quebec liquors have all won multiple international awards for taste and quality, and continue to impress spirits aficionados around the world. The SAQ has also dedicated thousands of your taxpayer dollars to advertise them, increasing their reputation.

Now, think of a Quebec wine — any wine. Having trouble? Unlike our spirits, the SAQ has done little to promote wines with a Quebec terroir, and few have won widespread international recognition. Though Quebec has great wine to offer, most people simply don’t know about them.

So it’s a bit of a turnaround to see the government now making it harder for distillers to do business in the province, while making it much easier for everyone else.

Quebec’s Minister of Finance recently tabled Bill 88, An Act respecting development of the small-scale alcoholic beverage industry. Most of the measures in the bill are very welcome. For one, Quebec alcohol producers will be allowed to sell their products directly to grocery stores and dépanneurs, giving them the same rights as breweries. Breweries and other alcohol producers will also be allowed to sell bottles of booze directly at the point of production, bringing the province in line with the rest of the civilized world.

But here’s the catch: To be able to sell anything that isn’t beer outside the SAQ, the alcohol must only be made from fruit, honey, or maple syrup — when’s the last time you enjoyed a good maple wine? — and it has to contain less than 16 per cent alcohol by volume.

This clause has locked Quebec’s artisanal distillers out from liberalization. The minister has effectively decided that distillers have no right to operate like normal businesses.

An article in La Presse attributes this discrimination to the fact that distilleries use imported grains; the idea is that products that aren’t Québécois shouldn’t benefit from preferential treatment.

In fact, Quebec’s craft distillers make it their duty to use local raw materials. Les Distillateurs Subversifs on the south shore and the Fils du Roi distillery both farm their own grain, and the Côte des Saints distillery hopes to start producing spirits from their farm in Mirabel shortly. Even urban distilleries make an effort to use local products, like the new Cirka Distillery on the Lachine Canal: they buy corn from Quebec farmers and use botanicals harvested from the boreal forest for their gin. These are purely Quebec products and express the creativity known to come from our artisans — and there are many more just like them.

While microdistilleries have grown like wildfire in the rest of North America, Quebec’s progress has been relatively slow, because of burdensome red tape. If our distillers are lucky enough to win a tender for a spot on the SAQ’s shelves, they can make a $5 profit on a bottle the monopoly sells for $42.50. But instead of helping them out, Bill 88 will impose more problems: our highly reputable artisans will have to have their products tested by chemists before being able to sell to anyone — despite the fact that the SAQ already performs its own quality control.

Quebec’s distillers have been asking for more flexibly for years. Their main demand is to be allowed to sell the sprits they craft directly from their distilleries. Even Ontario allows this!

Worse still, the Liberals asked the PQ government to do just that when they introduced Bill 395 in 2013, which would have allowed on-site sales at distilleries. Why did the Liberals turn their backs on producers now that they’re in power?

The Couillard government has shown itself to be a supporter of the free market and a defender of entrepreneurs. It has also shown itself to be open to reasonable compromise. Bill 88 is a good bill, but if it were amended to include microdistilleries, it could be a great one.

Tom Kott is a consultant at HATLEY Strategy Advisors, a Montreal-based public affairs firm.

Original post HERE


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