Quebec distillers stir up spirits in latest push for equality among alcohol producers

·3 min read
Maureen David, co-owner and president of 1769 distillery in Lachine, is pictured with her family. She says the family business has plenty of room to expand, but Quebec's current spirit regulations are stunting its growth. (1769 Distillery - image credit)
Maureen David, co-owner and president of 1769 distillery in Lachine, is pictured with her family. She says the family business has plenty of room to expand, but Quebec's current spirit regulations are stunting its growth. (1769 Distillery - image credit)

Several Quebec micro-distilleries opened their doors to the public on Saturday as part of a new campaign to expose consumers to the challenges the industry is facing, in hopes of changing provincial regulations on the sale of spirits.

Local liquor producers say the current rules mean they lose almost half the money they earn on each bottle, even when they sell directly to consumers on site.

"As we sell the product, we have to remit 52 per cent of the sale of that bottle back to the government," says Maureen David, co-owner and president of 1769 distillery in Lachine.

"If the government is taking the profits from the sales at the property, how are we going to reinvest our money in order to grow our business?"

David says it's especially frustrating to see different rules for alcohol producers with artisanal permits.

"Cideries, breweries and wineries in Quebec are allowed to keep their margin on their bottles sold on site at the property. But they're also allowed to sell directly to restaurants and they're also allowed to sell their bottles at events and festivals, and we are not."

Spirit producers in Quebec are forced to operate under an industrial license, which prevents them from selling online or directly to bars and restaurants. They need to go through the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ).

Sarah Leavitt/CBC
Sarah Leavitt/CBC

For Paul Cirka, the master distiller and founder of Cirka Distilleries in Montreal, the rules in place are archaic and a result of prohibition. He says there are more Quebec spirits on the market now than ever before, but the restrictions make it tough for small batch producers to turn a profit.

"We're the only province where we can't retail online. We're the only province where — if we sell our product out of the distillery, the point of manufacturer — that we have to send all of the taxes, all of the markup to the province," Cirka said.

"There's no reason for the government to be reaching so far into our pocket when we're making that sale on site."

'There's only so long that you can survive'

To that end, distillery owners with the Union québécoise des microdistillerie (UQMD) launched a petition at the National Assembly to push the province to change the laws quickly — more specifically, to put an end to the inequities before the summer of 2022.

Consumers who visited their local spirit producers on Saturday were invited to sign the petition. Some told CBC they were shocked to learn how much of on-site sales go directly to the government and the SAQ.

"[It's] absolutely ridiculous since [producers] do all the work," said customer Ilgin Sartekin. "It has to change, we have to support these local distilleries, just to keep our fantastic Montreal scene going."

Titouan Bussières/Radio-Canada
Titouan Bussières/Radio-Canada

The SAQ said in a statement it's doing everything it can to stock and promote spirits produced in Quebec, but only the government has the power to modify the law.

In a statement to CBC Montreal, Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon's office said there is a committee meeting this month to study if it's possible to relax the rules for spirit producers, but there is no timeline for when any rule changes might come into effect.

"It's an ongoing fight," said Cirka of the call for change. "I mean, I would say Quebec is probably the furthest behind in terms of helping this growing industry out."

"This is a high-volume, low-margin industry and so there's only so long that you can survive before it takes its toll."

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