How to Start a Distillery in Ontario

Here’s an article that’s been a long time coming. On top of my law practice, I’m also a founder of Last Straw Distillery, an award-winning micro-distillery near Toronto, Ontario. I started out as the company’s lawyer, and as with any small business, that role has slowly expanded to a litany of other tasks…. But the lawyer role remains central. I’ve also helped several other alcohol producers through the business startup and licensing process, so the contents of this article are hard-won knowledge. It’s a long read, but it’s a no bullshit assessment of the challenges you’ll face in getting your distillery off the ground.

The first thing you need to know about distilling is that it’s heavily regulated. The laws on spirits are even more dense and difficult to navigate than the regulations on beer or wine. This is, of course, because in the inestimable wisdom of successive governments since the end of prohibition, spirits are evil. For some strange reason (probably at the behest of the beer lobby), some Scottish Presbyterian politician in Ontario decided that the ethyl alcohol in hard liquor should be treated differently than the ethyl alcohol in wine and beer.

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Much like we’re seeing right now with the legalization of marijuana in Ontario, the laws are written by and for established, well-connected, well-funded big businesses. The time, expense, and expensive advice involved in navigating the system are designed to limit competition. For spirits, the government at the end of prohibition wrote the rules in a way that would make it difficult and expensive to start and run a distillery, and impossible to start on a small scale. As a result, Ontario had only a handful of big distilleries for nearly 80 years. It’s only recently that a few dedicated masochists set out to buck the trend. Through their dedicated efforts, some of the barriers to entry were lowered (slightly), and the Ontario distilling renaissance began.

I’m writing this article as an overview of the major steps involved in starting a distillery in Ontario, Canada. I imagine that most of the steps are mirrored in many other jurisdictions, but the nuances of the regulations will differ. As with any business, you certainly don’t need a lawyer to help you get it started, but a good lawyer will reduce the time from startup to sale, and deal with a lot of the headaches that can come from dealing with five or six different government departments at once.

Let’s get started.

Division of Powers

Booze has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few market sectors that is regulated by Federal, Provincial, and municipal governments. Technically, municipal governments are a subset of the Province, but practically speaking, it’s another layer you’ll have to deal with.

The Federal government’s primary concern with alcohol regulation is tax. As a luxury item, spirits are subject to Federal tax under the Excise Act. This tax accrues from the moment a drop of alcohol is manufactured, but only becomes payable when the alcohol is sold. More on this later. The Federal government also regulates the production, and labeling of spirits through the Food and Drugs Act and its Regulations, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Regulations, and the Spirit Drinks Trade Act. Oh, and if you’re thinking about selling your products internationally, the Federal government also regulates and licenses cross-border trade, where a different set of taxes and fees apply, on top of those imposed by the jurisdiction you’re exporting to.

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If that bundle of joy isn’t enough for you, the control of liquor is the responsibility of the Province. The Ontario government has created the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) to control the production and sale of spirits in Ontario. The AGCO then created the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), which has an absolute monopoly on spirits sales in Ontario. The AGCO implements government policy on spirits through the Alcohol and Gaming Regulation and Public Protection Act, the Liquor Control Act, and the Liquor License Act. As a manufacturing business, you’re also subject to the rules of the Electrical Safety Authority under the Electricity Act, as well as Ontario’s Building Code and Fire Code.

Lastly, as with any business, spirits producers are subject to the planning and zoning regulations of the municipality you’re in. In some municipalities, there’s a double layer of government – at the regional and town level.

Perhaps the worst part of working through the byzantine maze of regulations are the odd ways in which they interact. As I mentioned, the system was not developed with ease of navigation in mind, and there’s no clear, direct path through them. It’s common for applications to be caught in a Catch-22 of two levels of government refusing to process your application any further without the approval of the other coming first. In my experience, different offices of the same government branch interpret the exact same rules differently (and sometimes incorrectly), and impose different requirements. It takes time and patience to work through these things. Budget at least six months, or more realistically one year to work your way through this stuff. When I say budget, I mean both time and money – as you’ll be spending money on rent for a space you’re not allowed to use while your applications are in progress.

Now that you’re scared, let’s walk you through what it takes to get from idea to open for business.

Form of business

Distilleries can be any form of business, but if you don’t incorporate it, you’re a dumbass. When setting up your corporate structure, two factors will be relevant to the government:

  • Who controls the corporation; and
  • Who are directors, officers, or holders of at least 10% of any class of shares

Control comes into play in two ways. First, the government wants to know if the applicant is controlled by a company that is already licensed to produce spirits. Each distillery with a Provincial license is allowed one bottle shop at its distillery. An existing manufacturer can invest in starting another distillery, but special permission is required to open a bottle shop at the second distillery. Once you have that special permission, you can sell some products from the first distillery at the second one, but not the other way around. Weird, right?

Secondly, and most importantly, the government wants to know who are directors and officers of the business, and who owns 10% or more of any class of shares of the corporation. Because spirits are evil, the government wants to make sure that the people who own and operate distilleries are at least 19 years old, financially responsible, and of good character. If you own your shares through a holding company, you have to disclose the ownership and management of that holding company, and so on.

In my experience, simplicity in the way you structure the business helps a great deal. The folks reviewing your applications at the CRA and AGCO are not lawyers, and don’t understand the finer points of business ownership. If they see something they don’t understand, they’ll flag it, and get legal advice before proceeding. This, of course, takes time. The more complicated your ownership structure, the longer your application will take.

Zoning & Planning

This is probably the biggest, and most unexpected pain in the ass of the whole process, and where your lawyer will earn their keep. It is absolutely essential that you choose a location that will allow your business model to operate. Because distilleries are still relatively rare when compared to breweries and wineries, most municipalities don’t know how to deal with you. When in doubt, town planners and town councils will err on the side of what will get the municipality the most revenue in development fees. If you ask the municipality whether or not a distillery is allowed, you’ll probably end up paying to play. The only thing you actually need the municipality to do is to sign off on your bottle shop. Some municipalities may require a business license before you can set up shop, but most don’t.

Once you know where you want to start your distillery, and before you start searching for properties, get your lawyer to review that municipality’s planning and zoning bylaws, and provide an opinion. The lawyer’s opinion should tell you what zoning in that municipality allows a distillery to operate. The lawyer will also tell you if a variance or zoning change is required in order to operate. Also, believe it or not, some municipalities still have “dry” (no alcohol allowed) or “damp” (retail sales allowed, but not by the glass) neighbourhoods. The status of the neighbourhood may not prevent you from manufacturing, but it can prevent you from selling through a bottle shop, or an on-site bar. Both the CRA and AGCO will consider whether you’re contravening municipal bylaws, and whether your premises comply with the CRA and AGCO’s regulations. The lawyer’s opinion is super valuable in demonstrating that you’ve ticked all of the boxes.

Lastly, before you sign your lease or buy the property, take a good long look at what’s in the area. If any schools, churches, parks or playgrounds, community centres, or libraries are within a one kilometre radius, you may not be allowed to open a bottle shop or on-site bar.

Building/Fire Code

Once you have a location, you have to build it out. Obviously, all of your construction work must be done in accordance with the Ontario Building Code. Make sure that whoever is doing the work knows and complies with that code. Generally, Building and Fire Codes are dictated by the Province, but enforced by the municipality. Fire inspectors can enter anywhere, at any time, and can shut you down on the spot if you’re not in compliance, so don’t cut corners here.

Distilleries in Ontario are considered “High Hazard Industrial Occupancy” under the Fire Code. That means the building can’t also be used for public assemblies, residences, care facilities like hospitals or clinics, or for detention. If the occupancy load of the building is to be more than 25 people, the building requires emergency planning under the Fire Code. The Fire Code rating (F1) triggers specific requirements in the Building Code for fire-resistant barriers and insulation, emergency exits, and the like. It also triggers requirements in the Electrical Act, requiring the sign-off of an Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) inspector.

ESA sign-off is another odd bird. For all the distilleries I’ve helped through the process, I’ve never seen the same standard applied twice. Each inspector seems to interpret the requirements differently. The inspector’s requirements will play into your build-out – ventilation, type of wiring and electrical fixtures, signs, fire suppression systems, and even separating equipment in different fire-resistant rooms, for example. Find an inspector, and get their direction before you start building. Pass that direction on to the person doing the build out work, and make sure they build to that standard.

Lastly, if you’re looking to open an on-site bar, you’ll need the sign off of the Fire Department. Exits, fire suppression, and signage are all things they’ll look at.

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Federal Licensing

Once you’ve got an appropriate space locked down, you can then apply for your Federal licenses. The licenses are tied to the location. You have to occupy/possess the premises before your application will be processed. This means you’re paying rent on a space you can’t use while your applications are being processed – as long as 18 months in some cases.

The Canada Revenue Agency administers the licensing of distilleries under the Excise Tax Act. The licenses are issued for a two year period, and must be renewed. At the time of writing, there are no fees for the federal licenses. There are three key licenses – all of which can be applied for on the same form – which will cover off most things distilleries want to do.

Spirits License

The spirits license is the main one. It’s what permits you to produce or package spirits (beverage alcohol that isn’t wine, and is over 11.9% alcohol – otherwise it’s beer) in Canada, and to possess a still. If you’ve applied for a spirits license, you can possess a still, but can’t operate it. Home distilling is illegal. Without this one, you’re a bootlegger, not a distiller – and you won’t be able to secure any Provincial licenses either.

Excise Warehouse License

If you’re going to be storing spirits – whether in bulk, aging in barrels, or sitting in bottles waiting to be sold – you’ll also need an Excise Warehouse License. This delays the payment of Excise Tax on the spirits until they’re removed from the warehouse.

You will need to post security for the Excise Tax. The amount of security depends primarily on how many litres of absolute alcohol you plan to store in your warehouse. The CRA wants to make sure that even if you go bankrupt, you can still pay your Excise Tax. The minimum is said to be $5,000.00, however the lowest requirement I’ve seen is $10,000.00, and that’s for small distilleries dealing in white spirits – meaning they’re not aging large quantities. If you’re making whisky, rum, brandy, and other aged spirits, plan on posting way more. Security is typically posted by bond (insurance), though you can post negotiable instruments (cash, Canada Savings Bonds, etc) as security as well.

User’s License

The user’s license allows you to transfer bulk alcohol between booze producers of a different type. If you’re planning on buying in bulk alcohol to distill, age, modify, or repackage, you’ll probably need this. I say probably, because different CRA personnel apply the policy differently. You definitely need a user’s license to transfer bulk beer or wine from licensees. You might need a user’s license to buy bulk spirits – such as a neutral grain, or aged whisky for blending. Regardless of what your CRA agent says, some producers won’t transfer bulk spirits to you without seeing your user’s license, so it’s usually a good idea to get this license just in case.

Application

The application process takes anywhere from 3-18 months, depending on your agent, how prepared you are, if there are any issues with the application or the people involved in your business, and how busy the agents are. There are a few parts to the application:

  • L63E license application form
    • This includes details on directors and officers of the business, and will result in a background check on both criminal and financial sides
  • Business plan including:
    • Business industry overview;
    • Operating plan;
    • Human resources plan;
    • Financial plan or sources of funds;
    • Sale and marketing plan;

Your business plan must include 3 year projections of the litres of absolute alcohol you expect to produce, and the amount of what you produce that will be stored in bulk for aging, compared to what you expect to sell. This is what the CRA will use to calculate your security requirements.

You’ll also need to figure out how you’ll post security for the excise. Most distilleries will buy a bond, rather than posting the cash themselves. It’s a monthly expense, but your capital will be more useful elsewhere. The CRA will require the sealed original bond.

Once you’ve submitted the application, the CRA will get in touch with you pretty quickly to start the process. They’ll schedule a site visit, so they can inspect your facility to ensure it’s suitable (they’re primarily concerned with physical security – if someone steals your spirits, they’re stealing tax dollars too!). You don’t have to be fully built out by this point, but you must at least have the premises and a floor plan.

They’ll also confirm that you’ve ordered your still and instruments for measuring alcohol content. Your instruments must be inspected/calibrated by the CRA to ensure they’re accurate, which involves a fee. They may conduct a second site inspection before granting the license.

Once the license is approved, you’re finally able to produce spirits! Crank that still up, and get to work!

Provincial Licensing

Bet you thought the hard part was over. Well, it’s not. While the CRA licenses will allow you to produce and store alcohol, if you want to sell it in Ontario, you’ll need another set of licenses and authorizations from the Provincial government, which are administered by the AGCO.

The Provincial Manufacturer’s License is what allows you to sell spirits in Ontario. It takes about 1-3 months to process, if all goes smoothly, and costs $2,540.00 for 2 years, or $5,040 for 4 years at the time of writing. The application requires:

  • Completed application form
  • Business plan – generally the same one that you used for your CRA license will do, plus:
    • Floor plans for your facility
    • Details on planned sales channels
    • If you’ll be buying in mash, low wines, or bulk spirits from other producers
  • Municipal authorization form
  • Copy of CRA Spirits License
  • Lab test results on at least one product
  • Copy of business name registration
  • Application fee (non-refundable)

The AGCO will schedule a site inspection of your facility. As with the CRA, different agents will focus on different things, and sometimes the agent will waive the site inspection altogether.

Bottle Shop

If you want to operate a retail store on site, then you’ll need a retail store authorization from the AGCO. The AGCO delegates the administration of this to the LCBO. There’s no fee for the application, but you must include:

  • Municipal Information for a Retail Store Authorization form
  • Site plan detailing the production site and the proposed retail store location
  • Floor plan of the proposed retail store including square footage
  • If ownership and control of the production site is shared with any other licensed manufacturer – supplementary documentation demonstrating substantial ownership and control of the production site
  • A copy of each notification letter (if applicable) sent to any place of religious assembly, schools, public parks and playgrounds, community centers or libraries within 1 km of your proposed store location and copies of any responses/objections

If your bottle shop is approved, then you’ll need to sign a non-negotiable contract with the LCBO about how the bottle shop will be operated, and how you’ll pay the Spirits Tax. One of the most time-consuming parts of this contract is waiting for the LCBO to sign it – as only the President of the LCBO signs them, and does so about once a month. Schedule your grand opening accordingly!

Direct Delivery

If you want to deliver directly to bars & restaurants or to duty free shops, you’ll need separate direct delivery authorizations for each. The process is much the same as for a bottle shop, and results in another contract.

There are also separate licenses to sell spirits by the glass, and to operate an on-site bar or restaurant of your own, but we’ll save those for a future article.

Summary

As you can tell, it’s an awfully long and tedious process to get a distillery from the idea stage into operations. The typical timeline is 6-18 months, based largely on factors outside of your control. In my experience, each agent of a regulator that gets its hands on your application views the requirements differently, so there’s often a fair bit of back and forth involved.

TL;DR? Here’s Mikes’ 9 “Simple” Steps to Starting a Distillery in Ontario

  1. Incorporate
  2. Lawyer’s opinion on zoning/planning
  3. Sign lease
  4. Submit CRA license application
  5. Hire ESA inspector, get requirements for buildout
  6. Build
  7. Get CRA licenses, get municipal authorization
  8. Apply for AGCO licenses & authorizations
  9. Profit

Of course, having someone to turn to who’s been through the process before can help to grease the wheels. I’ve helped several distilleries through the startup process, and I’d be happy to help yours too. Drop me an email, and let’s talk!

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca

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Contractors & Copyright – don’t be held over a barrel

Most of the time I meet a new client, they’re in some sort of crisis. Often it’s a crisis of their own making, in which they’re so deeply mired in that they can’t self-extract. I greatly prefer to work on constructive projects where problems are anticipated, planned for, and ideally never become reality. I’m sure every entrepreneur feels the same way. Far too often, however, my first piece of work for a business is in dispute resolution rather than project-building. Some mistakes that seem like molehills at the time turn into mountains more quickly than anticipated. One common mistake that many small business owners make is to assume that they own all of the creative works that were made for their business by outside contractors – website and branding, most frequently.

Like your Business Depends On It…

For many companies nowadays, creative works – logos, graphic design, custom-built website code – are at the very core of their business. They can be part of your lead generation, customer services, e-commerce, promotions, and product education. For web-based businesses, much of the business’ actual value is in its “goodwill” – or the je ne sais quoi that makes your business profitable. Your web store ain’t going to generate much profit if it’s not online, well-maintained, and has proper user support, after all. Your brand ain’t going to expand very well into new markets if you’re restricted in how you can use your logo and graphics. If you ever hope to sell the business, pass it on to your kids, or bring investors on board, they’re going to want to know that the value of the business is secure. This is why it’s important to be certain of what your business owns. We do this by getting the rights to use creative work that’s made for your business in the way you want to use it. We law-nerds call that a “license”.

Without a license in place, an unscrupulous contractor can hold your company over a barrel for more money and threaten copyright enforcement proceedings if you use what they created. Shady? Hell yes, but it happens disturbingly frequently. I’ve seen it over and over, especially with coders building custom websites for internet-driven businesses. The designer gets to 80-90% completion so the business is fully committed, then work “stops while we work out licensing terms”. All of a sudden they want an annual fee to use the code, to be hired on to maintain and support the site, or to be paid every time you re-use the logo in a new setting. In the meantime, they lock down the 90% complete work so you can’t access it, and your business hangs in limbo.

That’s why It’s hugely important to negotiate the terms of the license – that is, the things you are and aren’t allowed to do – before you start working with the contractor. That’s the point where you, as the customer, have the most leverage, and can get the terms that best suit your needs. There are lots of graphic designers and web-coders out there – it’s a buyer’s market – so don’t be afraid to shop around. It’s easiest make sure that there are terms of license in the services contract that you sign, or an “assignment” of the rights that you need to deal with the work as needed. Otherwise, you’ll need to negotiate a side agreement. Only fools rush in – as soon as you’ve paid the contractor and work has begun, your leverage decreases. Now they have two things you need – your money, and the creative work – and you have neither.

Copyright

Our first stop on this magical journey into licensing is a quick look at copyright. Copyright is the right to produce or reproduce the creative work or any major part of it, to publish or exhibit the work, to perform it, communicate it, rent it, or to authorize any of the above. It applies to all original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, performances, sound recordings, computer programs, and communication signals, which I’ll call “creative works”. Copyright is designed to protect the creator of the work by giving them the exclusive right to profit from what they made.

Copyright protection comes into being as soon as the work is made, and applies to work-in-progress as well. It’s an automatic thing, so the creator doesn’t have to take any steps to register it in order for the work to be protected. Registering copyright work with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office is evidence of ownership, however. Registered or not, copyright lasts for the rest of the creator’s life, plus 50 years afterwards.

Employee or Contractor?

This article is meant for those dealing with outside contractors. Most small businesses will hire a contractor or company to do their creative work – like I did for my kickass business cards – as there’s not enough work to keep a designer busy as an employee.

If you’re lucky enough to have an employee who’s skilled in the ways of creating things, you don’t need a license or assignment. Any work an employee does in the course of their duties as an employee belongs to the employer. That rule is a fundamental part of the employer-employee relationship. That rule can be opted out of by contract.

An independent contractor, on the other hand, will own the copyright in whatever they create. This is true whether the contractor is an individual, partnership, or corporation. The line between employee and independent contractor can be blurry, and there’s a lot of grey area in the law. It boils down to how much control the employer exercises over the worker. The more control – like setting hours and place of work, ownership of tools, having the chance of profit and risk of loss – the more likely it is that they’re an employee in the eyes of the law.

If there’s a chance that a worker could claim they’re an independent contractor, you’re better safe than sorry. Get a license agreement or an assignment of intellectual property rights in writing.

License

A license is a contract giving permission to do something you’re not ordinarily allowed to do. We deal with licenses all the time – a driver’s license allows you to drive a car; a software license allows you to use a computer program; a liquor license allows a bar to sell alcohol; even a Blue Jays ticket is a license to go to the game and occupy a certain seat. Here, I’m talking about the right to use a copyrighted creative work in the ways your business needs to operate.

So, what things might you want to do? The main “rights” granted in creative works include the right to:

  • Use the work
  • Make copies of the work
  • Modify or improve the work
  • Distribute and redistribute the work
  • Sub-license the work

Certain rights, called “moral rights” will always belong to the designer, and can’t be assigned to another person. Moral rights include the right to the integrity of the work, and the right to be associated with the work (or remain anonymous, as the case may be). The creator can waive their right to enforce their moral rights.

Licenses can be exclusive, meaning that the creative work was made just for you, and nobody else can have it, not even the designer, or non-exclusive, meaning that the designer can re-use or re-license out the same design. Exclusive licenses make more sense when there’s a great deal of custom work involved, the creative work is central to your business, there’s risks your competitors might steal your model, or you’re laying out some serious cash to get the work done. Non-exclusive rights work better for simpler, more generic work – like basic web design or package deals – where there’s little risk of losing out if your competitors have something similar.

The most general of all is an open-source license. Sometimes called “copyleft” or a “permissive license”, open-source means that anyone can copy, distribute, and modify the work for any purpose, and without fees. There are several types out there, with varying limits on what can and cannot be done. Many web programming platforms, such as WordPress and Drupal, are subject to open-source licenses for any “derivative” works – as in, anything that’s made to tack-on to their platform must be distributed as open-source as well.

Pro-Tips

The toughest part in negotiating a license is finding the balance point where your business is protected, but the person doing the creative work has the freedom to use the tricks of the trade they’ve picked up to continue to earn a living. That’s why it’s important to know precisely what is being licensed, and what you’re using it for. The most certain way to achieve that is with a written license agreement.

Here are a few things your business can do to make sure you’re in the best position:

  • Know what you’re going to want to use the work for, and ensure that the designer is willing to give you those rights
  • Research what the industry standards are for licensing or assignment in the designer’s field of work
  • Get the license terms or assignment of rights in writing before you pay the designer, and before work begins
  • Know for sure whether the designer is an independent contractor or employee
  • Host the work-in-progress on your own servers, not the designer’s
  • Work with designers in your own jurisdiction – as enforcing an international contract can be all but impossible

Of course, there’s no joy quite like the joy a lawyer can bring to your life by taking the dreary contract drafting work off of your hands… I happen to know a guy… 😉

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw