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Food & Wine Can I return to Canada with a 10-litre cask of sake if I’m willing to pay the duty?

The question

I’m a Canadian travelling back from Japan to Ontario and want to bring home a 10-litre cask of sake, the Japanese rice wine. Can I import that much if I’m willing to pay the duties, or will it be confiscated regardless?

The answer

Yes, you can. And don’t under any circumstances let Canada Border Services Agency confiscate it without calling your lawyer. Many people falsely believe they can only bring back two bottles of wine or 1.14 litres of spirits per person after a brief absence. Those amounts apply merely to duty-free exemptions – in other words, volumes you can import for free. If you are willing to pay your honest share to the government and are physically carrying the alcohol with you into Ontario, you are permitted up to 45 litres in any combination of wine, spirits or beer (and, by implication, sake). There are conditions, of course. You must be 19 years of age, the liquid has to be for personal use and you must be prepared to show proof-of-purchase, including sales and credit-card receipts, to customs officials at the port of entry. Here’s a useful link to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s guidance on the matter.

Just remember, though, this is Canada. You should expect to pay handsomely for the privilege in the form of border levies, import duties, excise taxes and, in my extensive and unpleasant experience, long wait times at the airport. The surcharges, judging by my experience, can be roughly 50 per cent of your purchase price for wine, depending on how congenial your border official is and how much he or she slept the night before. (The fee is higher for spirits.)

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There is to my knowledge no officially posted classification for sake. Because of its high alcohol content of typically 20 per cent, the brewed rice beverage might fictionally be deemed a “spirit” by Canadian customs officials. Those officials in my experience tend to know nothing about wine and raise a flag at anything over 14-per-cent alcohol, automatically declaring it a distilled liquor, which they ignorantly did with me in assessing a California zinfandel that, not surprisingly for a zinfandel, exceeded 14-per-cent alcohol. As you probably know, sake is not a spirit because it’s not distilled. So, it may be wise to call the CBSA in advance to ask about it – and I would suggest making notes on or recording the conversation. When I contacted CBSA with the specifics of your question, I got the runaround and no satisfactory answer to my question. They kept referring me to the personal exemptions of two bottle of wine etc., which I specifically told them I was not asking about. I felt, as I often do dealing with federal and provincial government offices, that I was a character in a Kafka novel.

Maybe you’d have better luck calling the government as a private taxpayer rather than as a journalist. The CBSA Border Information Service number is 1-204-983-3500 (if calling from outside Canada) and 1-800-461-9999 from inside the country.

Good luck, and kampai!

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

Beppi Crosariol will once again be participating as The Globe’s wine expert on both the July 1-11, 2019, Globe and Mail Seine River (Paris and Normandy) Cruise and the July 28-Aug. 7, 2019, Globe and Mail Portugal River Cruise. For details on how to reserve your cabin visit GlobeandMailCruises.com.

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