Edmonton's craft distilleries hope for help

Alberta finance minister says he's 'very confident' its small brewery rebate is trade-compliant — as he vows to extend it to spirit-makers this year.

By: David P. Ball Metro Published on Thu Mar 23 2017

Edmonton’s “very fledgling” craft distilling industry is pouring a shot of optimism this week, after the province hinted they could see the controversial grants given to small breweries extended to them.

But not everyone in the liquor sector — or in constitutional law — is happy about finance minister Joe Ceci's announcement last Thursday that the province will “build on the success of our craft brewing program and work to model a similar program for Alberta’s craft distillers” this year.

The idea immediately raised alarm bells for the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is suing the province over its craft brewery incentives (see sidebar) — on behalf of alcohol importers and out-of-province beer-makers.

“If it is like the beer program, it would be subject to all the same criticisms,” said staff lawyer Derek James in a phone interview. “A protectionist tariff violates the constitution, the supreme law of the land.

“They say they’re doing it for all the right reasons: they’re going to protect local industry, which makes sense. But it frightens me when a government feels it’s above the law."

But the local distilling industry praised the announcement, despite the lack of details made public.

“We’d been lobbying the government for the last two years to try to get some kind of program in place to get us on parity with craft breweries and winemakers,” said Geoff Stewart, owner of Rig Hand Distillery in Nisku, and a member of Alberta Craft Distillers Association. "Although we’re waiting for the actual next steps before we get too excited, I have to admit.”

Ceci was not available for an interview Wednesday, but ministry spokesman Mike Brown emailed that although “details of the distilling program have not yet been announced,” Alberta already has “the most open liquor market in the country” and its consumers have “the greatest choice” of products.

“The distilling program will allow the craft distilling industry to thrive,” Brown wrote.

However, the ministry didn't answer whether the proposed distillery grant would be different from the current breweries program, not respond to concerns it might violate trade rules.
 
During his post-budget remarks last week, Ceci told reporters he was “confident” that modelling a small distillers grant on the existing program would be legally sound — “something that’s being handled by Justice,” he explained. “I’m very confident that we are trade-compliant.”