Officials say a whisky raid across four B.C. establishments this week has resulted in the seizure of hundreds of bottles of alcohol.
The Liquor Control and Licensing Branch confirmed to Black Press Media that raids occurred simultaneously Thursday at Union Club and Little Jumbo in Victoria, The Grand Hotel in Nanaimo, and Fets Whisky Kitchen in Vancouver. The alcohol was confiscated because it was not acquired through the Liquor Control Branch, according to B.C. Ministry of Attorney General.
The raids center around whisky purchased from Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), a private club whose website states Canadians can access the largest selection of single cask, single malt whiskies available in the world through membership in their club.
The four establishments involved in the raids are SMWS Partner Bars and the only whisky taken at each location were the Society bottles.
“We have developed relationships with a few bars who are whisky-focused, who also see this as a great product and want to give it to their customers,” said Rob Carpenter, the owner of Scotch Malt Whisky Society. “We’ve had these relationships in place for years and no complaint has ever been raised about it.”
Carpenter said neither he nor the establishments were given notice of any infraction prior to the raid. He also said very little information was provided to the establishments about why the bottles were being confiscated.
The government inventoried, catalogued, sealed and removed 242 bottles of SMWS whisky worth about $40k from Fets Whisky Kitchen in Vancouver, said Carpenter.
“Legally, a restaurant cannot buy their liquor anywhere else except a government liquor store,” said Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant & Food Services Association. “In this case, the restaurants were buying the rare scotch whisky from a private retailer.”
The government needs to revisit its legislation around private liquor sellers, according to Tostenson, who recently led an industry presentation to the government encouraging them to modernize the system in light of specialty products.
Odai Sirri, The Grand Hotel vice-president of operations, said Liquor Control Branch agents confiscated 11 bottles of whisky from the hotel’s bar in Nanaimo.
Sirri said the products taken were obtained by the hotel through The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Canada.
“The Malt Whisky Society promotes whiskies and scotches from around the world and tries to increase the knowledge base about distilleries and the amount of work and passion that goes into creating some of the best scotches and whiskies internationally,” Sirri said.
He said the liquors are presented at special blind tasting events where participants purchase the tasting samples. The product brands and origins are unveiled following the tastings.
“And we collect the taxes on them and remit the taxes on them,” Sirri said.
Sirri went on to say the owner of the bars that were raided Thursday are operating above board. Whisky tasting events have been held for years and there has never been any secrets about the products being promoted.
He said he finds the government’s actions Thursday as reminiscent of the 1920s prohibition era.
“This is not, like, hooch we’re talking about,” Sirri said. “I’m getting imagery of Eliot Ness barreling through the back of these secret bars and blowing up barrels of high end scotch and whisky. Eliot Ness isn’t with us any longer, nor should this government be operating like we’re in that era.”
Sirri said there was no warning of the action that was taken Thursday and if the Scotch Malt Whisky Society was in any way in contravention of the laws then the government should address those concerns with the society and with liquor licensees in a reasonable manner instead of acting the way it did.
“If the government has a problem with it then let’s talk about it in a responsible manner,” Sirri said. “You don’t do these raids at dawn on tax-paying businesses, law-abiding citizens who are trying to enhance the industry,” Sirri said. “In light of an era where we’re trying to legalize marijuana, really? I mean, really?”
Sirri said the Liquor Control Branch had not informed him whether The Grand Hotel was going to receive a fine or other penalties as the branch’s investigation was still ongoing.
“Selling illegally obtained liquor is right up there with selling booze to minors. Those are the two things that get you in hot water with Liquor Control and Licensing Branch,” said Glenn Barlow, owner of Cook St. Liquor and the Food and Beverage Director of Atomique Productions.
“In fairness to government, David Eby is pretty aware of liquor policy in the province and he is moving the ball forward trying to fix some of these things,” said Tostenson.
Black Press Media reached out to The Union Club for comment, but they refused comment.
The story is ongoing and will be updated shortly.