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British Columbia B.C. lawyer reviewing provincial liquor laws was critical of wholesale reforms

Liquor inspectors remove bottles of whisky at Fets Whisky Kitchen on Thursday in Vancouver.

Eric Fergie

The man in charge of taking yet another look at British Columbia's liquor laws has, in the past, voiced his opposition to the rule that led to government agents swooping into four establishments to seize hundreds of bottles of whisky bought from private liquor stores and not the government-run outlets.

Mark Hicken, a long-time wine-industry lawyer appointed by the NDP government in November to review provincial liquor rules, said on Monday that he could not comment on last Thursday's raids of three bars and a Victoria private member's club that purchased alcohol from two private liquor stores in Victoria and Vancouver. Mr. Hicken is engaging with various stakeholders and is expected to submit his recommendations to the Ministry of the Attorney-General by the end of March.

However, in 2015, he was critical of the Liberal government's liquor reform for not allowing B.C.'s bars, restaurants and hotels to purchase alcohol at wholesale prices or to buy from hundreds of private outlets – stores those in the hospitality industry say offer more unique products that customers want.

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"Despite being some of the largest wholesale liquor customers in BC, restaurants/bars/hotels continue to be denied wholesale pricing. These 'hospitality' customers still have to pay full retail prices and are restricted in terms of whom they can purchase from (government liquor stores and approved BC manufacturers such as wineries)," he wrote in a blog post on his professional site.

In another post from that year, he wrote: "This [retail system] puts the entire hospitality sector at a competitive disadvantage to neighbouring jurisdictions. And … they still have no choice as to where they buy their product. This is not good for wine culture in restaurants/bars/hotels."

Attorney-General David Eby's office, which is overseeing the liquor policy review, would not say whether it is considering changing the rules so that these establishments are no longer forced to buy exclusively from government-run stores at full retail price plus 5-per-cent goods and services tax. In March, 2016, while the opposition critic on the file, Mr. Eby criticized the Liberals in the legislature for the current system.

"Yet in British Columbia, we actually charge restaurants and tourism-service providers full retail cost, and then they put their own markup on it in selling to their customers. So when people come from around the world to B.C., they say: 'We'd love to try that B.C. wine, but it's 10 bucks a glass. We'll have the $5 Chilean wine,'" he said, according to official transcripts.

Thursday's seizures took place at four locations that are partner bars of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a company that brings single-malt whiskies into the province through legal channels. Because government stores don't offer as wide a range of brands, hundreds of bars and restaurants across the province have been quietly sourcing their alcohol from private outlets, according to Rob Carpenter, the Calgary-based owner of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

During consultations over the last review in 2013, many in the hospitality industry told the government that this rule needed to be changed, he said.

"We talked to a lot of people in the industry and they did consistently mention this, but it just didn't get picked up as one of the recommendations."

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Liberal MLA John Yap, who is now the critic on the alcohol file after overseeing the former government's overhaul of the province's liquor laws, was unavailable for comment Monday. In his final 2014 report, Mr. Yap said this issue and several other pricing questions fell outside of the terms of reference he was given.

Bruce Gillespie, managing director of Victoria's Little Jumbo restaurant and bar, said he pulled the offending whisky from his bar when he got wind of last week's raids. He said he didn't lose any product when inspectors visited, but he is angry at the optics of the raids.

He said the previous Liberal government's liquor reforms were all populist moves that benefited people who like to drink, but didn't address long-standing issues for restaurants and bars.

Eric Fergie, co-owner of Vancouver's Fets Whisky Kitchen, said he has hired a lawyer to assess his legal options after inspectors raided his premises Thursday and seized 242 bottles of whisky with a wholesale value of about $40,000.

"Our hope for all this is that we can help facilitate change and not be too much collateral damage along the way," he said on Monday while walking through Vancouver's Robson Square, where he marvelled that an illegal open-air cannabis market had reopened after a raid the evening before.

With reports from Wendy Stueck in Vancouver and Justine Hunter in Victoria

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