The Yukon’s archaic liquor laws threaten
bar owners with odd violations that seem to come out of nowhere.
A liquor inspector once hassled Coasters for letting an underage delivery boy — who wasn’t employed by the bar — move flats of beer into the building.
“The kid was 18 and he was working for A-1 hauling 15ers off the truck into my cooler,” said Coasters owner Keith Jacobsen.
“Then the liquor inspector comes in and tells me I’m about to run afoul of him.”
These inconvenient laws are what the government hopes to streamline with sweeping changes to the 30-year-old Liquor Act.
Proposed amendments to the act introduced by the government in the legislature Tuesday range from increased penalties for violations to easing labour laws for minors.
Hotel room requirements for bars will also be eliminated, paving the way for neighbourhood pubs.
Jacobsen recently purchased the Capital Hotel, which he plans on refurbishing into a brewpub when he takes possession of the building on April 1.
The purchase includes 15 “awkwardly placed” hotel rooms that left the new owners with restricted renovation options.
The new regulations will allow Jacobsen to expand his operations.
“We want to get rid of some of those rooms,” he said.
“Now we can expand our kitchen and brewing operation.”
The pub will brew beer on site, allowing patrons to sip drinks fresh from the vat.
The new laws also change retail restrictions, and the brewpub could possibly sell its own beer for off-premise consumption.
“The things they’ve changed are real common sense,” said Jacobsen.
The government is changing the licensing definitions into “liquor primary,” and “food primary,” separating establishment categories into bar and restaurant.
And a restaurant could be licensed to become a bar later in the day.
Patrons would no longer have to order a meal with their drinks in a restaurant like Boston Pizza or Earl’s.
The changes are similar to those in the Liquor Act and Regulations Review established by the Liberals in 2001.
“This brings the laws into the 21st century,” said minister responsible for the Yukon Liquor Corporation, Jim Kenyon.
“Right now, if we wanted to go over and order some wine and mushroom caps, in the Yukon that’s illegal.”
The government hopes to have the changes in place by the beginning of summer, added Kenyon.
The room requirement is antiquated, he said.
“Things have changed and it’s not necessary to have those rooms attached,” said Kenyon.
“Many establishments have rooms they use for storage and they have to clean them out when the liquor inspectors come. We spend more time getting around the act than actually dealing with it.”
The old act accommodated home brewing and wine making, but the proposed amendments would also allow people to bring homemade wine to weddings, which is currently illegal.
Fines and penalties for selling liquor to minors, bootlegging and using fake identification will be increased.
RV parks would be allowed to sell beer and wine to guests.
And the RCMP will be allowed to hold somebody in the drunk tank for a maximum 24 hours under the new laws. That’s up from 12 hours.
“If you have a real heavy drinker, he could still be drunk after 12 hours and yet the RCMP has no choice and can’t hold him any longer,” said Kenyon.
Minors would also be allowed to serve liquor in restaurants and could work in bars for limited purposes.
A band with an underage drummer would be able to play in bars, too.
That has Coasters’ entertainment manager Jonas Smith applauding the proposed changes.
There’s plenty of young talent in Whitehorse that have been left off stage because of the age restrictions, said Smith.
“There have been many occasions when we could have used people under 19 but it would have been illegal under the current act,” he said.
Finding staff in the service industry is a widespread problem, so the change allowing minors to work in bars in certain situations might have little effect, said Jacobsen.
It’s the entertainment options that could have the real impact, he added.
Opposition parties say these changes are long overdue.
Seven years overdue in fact, said Liberal MLA Eric Fairclough.
In 2001, the governing Liberal party introduced similar changes, including the elimination of hotel room requirements, after extensive public review.
An election brought the Yukon Party to power and the changes were pushed aside despite repeated calls to amend the Liquor Act.
Things changed, said Fairclough.
There were two Yukon Party ministers who vocally opposed the changes — both were hotel owners, he said.
And one is no longer sitting in government, said Fairclough.
The other, Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Archie Lang sold his interest in three hotels in Watson Lake to the Liard First Nation last summer.
The timing is too convenient — after holding out on the changes for so long, said Fairclough.
“They no longer own hotels,” he said.
“That’s a big push. What does it mean to them anymore? Not much.”
Bootlegging has been a problem is Fairclough’s Mayo-Tatchun riding for some time.
There is no place in Pelly Crossing that sells booze legally and the situation creates opportunities for bootleggers, he said.
Now the stiff penalties in combination with regulations that make it easier for small pubs to open should help that problem, said Fairclough.
People have talked about pubs in Porter Creek and Riverdale in the past, and now it appears the pubs could become a reality.
But the government doesn’t expect a rush to open bars in the wake of the new laws, said Kenyon.
The market will determine how many bars are open, he said.
“We may see a slight reorientation of the types of crowds establishments go after,” he said.
Competition is always good, but there are already a lot of choices for drinking, said Smith.
Even with the recent loss of the Blue Moon, Free Pour Joe’s and the Discovery Bar, most watering holes haven’t seen a huge increase in business, he said.
“The opportunity to open a bar is there if people have the money, but I don’t see the market being saturated overnight,” said Smith.
“The business is not there and hasn’t been for several years.”
Opening up neighbourhood pubs could improve public safety, said NDP Leader Todd Hardy.
Residents in Porter Creek or Riverdale wouldn’t have to drive downtown for a drink and could walk, or stumble, home from a neighbourhood bar.
“Any deterrent to drinking and driving, I support,” he said.
“I don’t know if this will have the necessary outcome to discourage people from drinking and driving. However, we do have to bring in deterrents on multiple levels to stop it as much as possible.”
In July, the government introduced amendments that allowed for private distilling, something the Yukon Brewing Company plans to start next year.
The Yukon Bureau of Statistics doesn’t keep numbers on drinking establishments, but the number of food services and drinking places totaled 74 in December 2007.
That’s up from 60 at the beginning of the year.
The BC Yukon Hotels’ Association said its spokesperson could not be reached.