In 2007, Tyler Dyck laid down six French oak sherry barrels of single malt whisky at his Okanagan Spirits distillery in Vernon. By the time that first batch is ready for market early next year, he is hoping he can sell it without the provincial government taking two-thirds of the revenue.
On Wednesday, B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix promised the province’s fledgling craft liquor industry a break: He said they should have parity with British Columbia’s successful wine industry. That means a smaller government markup, onsite sales and the ability to sell directly to restaurants and bars without handing over a share to provincial coffers.
Rich Coleman, minister responsible for liquor distribution in B.C., is already working on new regulations to help the industry, but there is a hitch: The distillers will have to find a made-in-B.C. source for all their ingredients if they want the benefits that government provides to the province’s wineries.
Mr. Dyck, who is also the spokesman for the seven-member Artisan Distillers Guild of British Columbia, maintains that the industry needs a transition period if it is to grow. “We want to promote B.C. products, right down to the bottles and logos and graphics,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “We try to be local – it’s a better story for us.”
Okanagan Spirits started out making brandy from excess B.C. fruit that was otherwise bound for the compost. Today it has added absinthe, gin, grappa and fruit liqueurs to its original eaux de vie line.
But all seven members of the distillers guild together produce fewer than 100,000 bottles of spirits each year. The industry doesn’t have enough heft to support local production of pure alcohol, which is used in some of their products. The distillers can source B.C. grapes, cherries, apples and pears, but the pure alcohol comes from Alberta.
Mr. Dyck says the B.C. Liberal government has been sympathetic but the changes are slow in coming. If the NDP wants to champion small business and agriculture, he isn’t going to complain.
“I want to work with anyone out there who can forward our cause on this common-sense issue. I truly believe the Liberals are working on it. But the wheels of politics spin slowly,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, the distillers are struggling.
“For us, it will make every difference in the world. If these changes don’t happen, probably half of us won’t be around in five years,” he said.
At a news conference Wednesday morning, Mr. Dix said provincial governments going back to the 1980s have helped nurture a successful wine industry through policy and regulation.
“The success of the wine industry has benefited B.C. agriculture, benefited B.C. tourism and benefited the B.C. economy. We have an opportunity to do something similar with respect to artisan distillers,” he said.
Mr. Coleman said he expects new regulations to help the industry will be in place this fall. But he added that the changes won’t make much difference because the only products that will qualify for relief, he said, will be those that are 100-per-cent B.C. product – just like the wine industry.
He added that the industry didn’t need to turn to the NDP for help. “They know work was getting done. I guess they are just trying to play both ends against the middle to get it done. But we have to follow the law,” he said. “We can’t just wave a wand tomorrow and say we’re changing the law.”