In British Columbia, where Vancouver hosts an open-air cannabis market and there are dozens of dispensaries operating without a licence from the city, the province's liquor inspectors on Thursday raided several establishments for selling whisky obtained from private liquor stores and not the government-run outlets.
Three bars and a Victoria private member's club had their shelves denuded of the contraband products, which were purchased from two private liquor stores in Victoria and Vancouver.
"Three inspectors entered the store, told staff they had reason to believe that there were illegal products on the shelves and that they were there to confiscate it," Allura Fergie, owner of Vancouver's Fets Whisky Kitchen, told The Globe and Mail on Friday.
The inspectors then proceeded to label, seal and pack up 242 bottles of whisky with a wholesale value of about $40,000, she said.
The raid took place at 10 a.m., just as the restaurant was opening, co-owner Eric Fergie said, adding that inspectors entered all four establishments at the same time.
"I've never heard of that happening before – of a raid of this scope," Mr. Fergie said. "This is Elliot Ness, prohibition-style stuff."
Similar seizures took place at three other locations on Vancouver Island – all of which are partner bars of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a firm that brings single malt whiskies into the province through legal channels.
Provincial liquor laws, which are now under review by an independent expert hired by the government, state that bars and restaurants must buy their alcohol from government-run stores and not the province's more than 600 private outlets.
But, because the government stores don't offer as wide a range of brands, hundreds of bars and restaurants across the province have been quitely sourcing their alcohol from private outlets, according to Rob Carpenter, the Calgary-based owner of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
"No inspector has ever mentioned that concern to Fets before and then a sledgehammer comes down yesterday," said Mr. Carpenter, who added that he believes the raids were a result of a complaint.
Ms. Fergie said liquor inspectors have visited her business regularly over the past few years without raising concerns about non-government products on the shelves.
"All they needed to do was to come in and say, 'hey, where are these bottles from, you're not allowed to have them on your shelves' – and worked with us. They didn't have to come in like in the days of Al Capone."
A spokesperson for the provincial attorney general's ministry said the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch cannot comment on enforcement actions.
Many investigations are complaint-driven and it is unclear whether the raids were part of a concerted push to crack down on this phenomenon.
The Fergies also questioned the timing of the raids, which came as the Victoria Whisky Festival, scheduled for January 18 to 21, was getting underway.
"This weekend, there will be whisky producers, brand ambassadors, from all over the world, for this event. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was supposed to be showcased at this event. Now they have cancelled their engagements and are refunding tickets," Mr. Fergie said.
Fets obtains its whisky from licensed sellers and pays all applicable taxes – unlike cannabis vendors who have set up shop indefinitely Vancouver's Robson Square, the couple said.
"There's no [Canada Revenue Agency] revenue, there's no taxes paid. There's no benefit to the government. We are a licensed establishment and we are a benefit to the government," he said, referring to tax payments.
The couple hopes the raids – which drew significant media attention and left customers fuming – could be a catalyst for regulatory change.
Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees of B.C., a trade group representing owners of the private liquor stores, said the law that got these establishments in trouble Thursday could easily be fixed.
"No one was being injured, no minor was being served," he said. "This is simply an old rule that needs to be changed."