Quebec micro-distilleries face more hurdles to sell locally than abroad
'Government is doing everything to make sure it's impossible,' says author of book on SAQ
Ungava Gin, an easily-recognizable, yellow-tinted spirit made in Quebec, is sold in six other provinces and 55 countries. It has won international awards and regularly receives high marks from specialist publications.
But it still can't be sold in its own distillery, or anywhere else in Quebec except for the Société des alcools du Québec.
In fact, for a long time, Quebec's liquor board also didn't carry it.
"We presented it to the SAQ several times and were refused," said Charles Crawford, founder and president of Domaine Pinnacle, which makes the gin.
"Getting in was a challenge and remains a challenge for any new player."
Even though craft distilleries are booming in the province, getting their products sold on local shelves is one of the main hurdles distillers face.
Quebec allows local wines and ciders to be sold where they are made, but the rule doesn't apply to spirits.
"The biggest problem, is all the laws and regulations, the red tape, that is all around the industry of micro-distilleries," said Nicolas Duvernois, CEO of Pur Vodka and Romeo's Gin.
Like Ungava, Pur Vodka has won international acclaim. It was first made in 2006, but the SAQ only started selling it in 2010.
In comparison, Ontario's liquor board does more to promote local products, says the author of a book on the SAQ.
"We try to buy local but unfortunately, in terms of alcohol, the government is doing everything to make sure it's impossible in Quebec right now," said author Éric Duhaime.
In 2013, Liberal MNA Stéphane Billette introduced Bill 395, legislation that would allow small distillers with permits to sell their own products at agricultural events. But the bill stalled after the Parti Québécois government lost power.
Duvernois said the government is not taking provincial artisanal spirit producers seriously because they represent a small group.
"It's not a priority," he said.
The SAQ wouldn't agree to an interview.
For now, it seems the industry will keep growing the same way good spirits are made: slowly.