Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


BC LCLB guns for SMWS


Like most visitors to Vancouver I have walked round Gastown, the oldest part of the city, and taken a picture of the steam clock, done the normal touristy things and wondered:  “why is it called Gastown?”  At first I thought it had something to do with fuel but of course that’s not right. It was named after Gassy Jack Deighton (so called because he talked a lot) who opened a saloon around which the settlement developed. You might say Vancouver is founded on booze. Then it was not classy, today it is.

At the time saloons were open all day everyday and towards the end of the Nineteenth Century anxiety about the drinking culture grew, driven by moral panics about an out of control lower order and a desire for the population to be  serious, sober, and industrious. This was largely driven religious conviction combined with undeniable evidence that too much alcohol does indeed produce certain social problems. But the hardline attitude that alcohol was of itself evil and should be banned, was primarily a protestant thing.  There was the growth of something called the “Social Gospel” which was an assault on the ills of society brought on by: urbanism, materialism, corruption, economic distress, and of course alcohol. This zeal for social reform combined with a passion to purify the world in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God. was a powerful, fervent, steely combination. Eventually the agitation had a political effect. In 1878 and Act was passed that allowed local governments to ban retail sales of alcohol, after a popular vote. But nothing is ever enough for zealots and if you give a little ground they will always want more so in 1896 the government agreed to a national consultation, which like Brexit only succeeded in exposing deep division. The drys won every province, except Quebec, which was of course Catholic, but by the narrowest of margins and it gave the government a huge headache. If they acted they would be acting against half the population but if they did nothing they would be ignoring the result of a vote. In the end the easiest choice was to do nothing, whilst claiming the majority wasn’t big enough for change (actually I rather wish our government had had the courage to do this with the Brexit result – but that is another story). The fudge was that action could still be taken at the local level.

The inevitable result was that the prohibitionists redoubled their efforts and the outbreak of war in 1914 gave them a chance to associate prohibition with patriotism i.e. nothing should be allowed that might in anyway be detrimental to the war effort. The country went dry but after the war the mood shifted and prohibition was eased, at different times and in different ways by each of the provinces. However there was no desire to go back to the old ways of unrestricted consumption and saloons that never closed and voters were only offered the choice of prohibition or total government control.  Although a more moderate line of regulation with a government monopoly  had been mooted it was never offered.

So when prohibition was ended in British Colombia it was replaced by strict regulation. You could only buy from a government store if you had an annual permit, which cost as much as a days wages. In addition prices were high and the stores were designed to be discouraging. Unlicensed public drinking was also illegal. The Liquor Control Board though, began to license beer parlours, mostly in hotels,  in districts that had voted for beer, but they were bounded by restrictions such as customers having to be seated to receive their drinks, which had to be brought to them and being able to move their beer from one table to another (this had to be done for them).

Over time bits and pieces were liberalised but the basic principal remains – it is the government that owns the booze.

“If you’ve ever had a beer at a beer festival, you might have assumed it was a simple transaction between yourself and the brewer selling their beer. In fact, the brewery first has to sell its beer to the government, which sells the beer to the festival organizers, who sell the beer back to the brewery, which then sells the beer to you, the consumer.”¹

This is one example of how silly things can get.  The “prohibition style” raid on four BC bars, which saw the removal of SMWS whisky from their shelves is another.

The Province of British Columbia has a reputation for being socially liberal but the laws around alcohol are a thicket of regulation and restriction that come from a piecemeal unpicking of Prohibition.  The confused state of the legislation is a prime example of how you can’t understand the present unless you also know the past. So, for example, the government monopoly on selling to the public was eased and independent retailers were allowed but this was not a full-scale reform. These retailers have to buy, at a high price, from the Liquor Board list. but they can compete on service, staying open longer, or stocking speciality items on the LCLB list but not sold in  government stores because they are are too niche. However licensed premises were left out of this liberalisation – they were still required to buy all their stock from the an official liquor store, with no chance of buying small quantities of speciality products.

SMWS whisky is a prime example of a low volume specialist product – there is only ever a limited number of bottles of any of their whiskies.

The law was got round mostly by being ignored. Bars and restaurants who wanted to carve an identity for themselves by offering  something special bought from independent stores.  Apparently that was and is quite common and quite open. and something you would expect in a metropolitan city like Vancouver.  Over the years many inspectors from have visited such establishments, known how they sourced and been content to let it pass. Life carried on – nobody was hurt – the government lost no revenue, and customers benefited as choice was extended. In some circumstances a nod and a wink is the best policy.

So what happened on the 19th of January when the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch raided bars in Vancouver and Victoria  to take away SMWS bottles (and only SMWS bottles)?  Why the big flourish at the time of the Victoria Whisky Show and why such a drastic tightening of enforcement policy without any fore warning or discussion with bar owners?

I doubt if we will get a complete answer from the LCLB or its ultimate boss,  Attorney General David Eby, who only assumed office in July 2017.  When an overt show of force from a government agency is met with widespread ridicule officials tend to clam up or fall back on a motte and bailey defence².  But there has to be a reason for their action, even if they don’t want to openly admit it. Sometimes a government acts because of genuine policy concerns, sometimes it is because of petty departmental infighting – but there is always a reason and some discussion.

I have read of a couple of theories. The first is that David Eby is campaigning about lax law enforcement of the previous regime and his desire to change it. – to be a new broom, a reformer, a warrior for justice.  (His speech on housing and trans national money laundering is an indication of how be a reformer and fight the good fight). It could be that LCLB wanted to show they were onside and wanted to prove they were red hot. The other theory concerns the  plans to legalise pot and control its sale in the same way as alcohol through the LCLB. Perhaps there was the desire to show that this enforcement would not be a push over. Both theories might be plausible but that does not mean they are necessarily true and neither answers the question of why SMWS?  The agents took only their bottles and left other whiskies that had also been bought from independent retailers. Why did they seek out this high-end minnow for a show of strength?

Perhaps we will find out in time but perhaps that will be in the distant future when we have forgotten about it,  and an announcement is slipped out, marked by only a small news paragraph. But what we do know now is fascinating. It shows how as society evolve they leave behind the residue of past ideological battles, which are often embedded in legislation that either represents victory for one side,  a compromise to keep things together, or the general mood of the time. When the mood changes there is either reform, which probably means some of the battles have to be refought, or things are quietly forgotten.  But when things are forgotten and we rely on convention the old law can still be rolled out and applied.  Who in the 1970s thought blasphemy was anything but a relic of the religious  wars of previous centuries but Mary Whitehouse still managed to mount a successful prosecution Gay News for a poem. Zombie laws and regulations can have effect.

I will thus end with the very odd thought that in raiding four whisky bars in the vibrant and lovely cities of  Vancouver and Victoria, the BC government managed to conjure up its own Mary Whitehouse moment.


¹ This is a good news article about the raid

Another good article giving more background to Canada liquor laws can be found here 

For background on how the licensing laws of BC are being reviewed here is a list of recent changes. But strangely, unto now, the issue of sales to bars has not been an issue


² The motte and bailey fallacy is a really common rhetorical device in politics and once you are aware of it you cannot help seeing it everywhere. It is defined in Wikipedia:

Motte and bailey (MAB) is a combination of bait-and-switch and equivocation in which someone switches between a “motte” (an easy-to-defend and often common-sense statement, such as “culture shapes our experiences”) and a “bailey” (a hard-to-defend and more controversial statement, such as “cultural knowledge is just as valid as scientific knowledge”) in order to defend a viewpoint. Someone will argue the easy-to-defend position (motte) temporarily, to ward off critics, while the less-defensible position (bailey) remains the desired belief, yet is never actually defended.

In short: instead of defending a weak position (the “bailey”), the arguer retreats to a strong position (the “motte”), while acting as though the positions are equivalent. When the motte has been accepted (or found impenetrable) by an opponent, the arguer continues to believe (and perhaps promote) the bailey.

In this case the motte is the need regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol and the bailey is that this means a government monopoly. Or we must hold the rule of law means we are justified in this half-arsed action.

P.S. The photo at the head of this post is one I took from a restaurant on Granville Island and is a reminder of what a lovely, modern, metropolitan city Vancouver is. You have no sense that some of its laws are a bit antiquated

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