Canada’s Liquor Labelling Requirements Part 2

*Click here to read Pt. 1 of this article*

A beverage with alcohol by volume greater than 1.1% is considered an alcoholic beverage under the Food and Drug Regulations. The Regulations describe alcoholic beverages by their “common name” – which is another way of saying the category of liquor the beverage falls into (e.g. beer, wine, whisky).

The Regulations set out a “standard of identity or composition” for most alcoholic beverages. In more simple terms that means the government has defined the fundamental criteria: ingredients, method of production and characteristics, for the most common types of alcoholic beverages.

If an alcoholic beverage meets one of these standards then that “common name” must be used to describe the beverage if it has been imported, or is intended for interprovincial trade (most liquor in Canada falls into one of those two categories). If your brewery makes an alcoholic beverage that looks and tastes like beer – then it only makes sense that it should be labelled “beer”. The Regulations ensure that if a consumer picks up a can marked “beer” they have a pretty good idea of what is inside.

But what if you operate a distillery, and you make a unique product that is not easily classified? The Regulations can’t possibly contain definitions and classifications for every possible alcoholic beverage imaginable. In these instances alcoholic beverages that do not meet a prescribed standard must be labelled with the name by which the liquor is generally known, or “a name that describes the true nature of the product.”

Generic names such as “beverage”, “drink”, “cooler”, “spirit” or “liquor”, as appropriate, are accepted common names of alcoholic beverages that do not have a prescribed standard composition.

So what does all of this mean? For consumers the Regulations serve a valid purpose: when you walk into a liquor store and buy a bottle labelled “Irish Whisky” you expect that the whisky you are about to enjoy was distilled in Ireland. The Regulations are in place to ensure that is the case. Not only do the Regulations serve this informative purpose (some bottles are so decorative and heavily branded it can be tough to know what liquor is actually inside) but they also prevent less scrupulous manufacturers and distributors from holding out spirits as say “Bourbon Whisky” when the whisky inside is nothing of the sort.

Alcoholic beverages with compositional standards set out in the Regulations are also exempt from the requirement to show a list of ingredients, whereas unstandardized alcoholic beverages require a complete list of ingredients.

For example in Canada an alcoholic beverage is not permitted to use the common name “liqueur” if it contains cream as an ingredient, as cream is not permitted in the liqueur standard under the Regulations. This means despite colloquial references to Bailey’s as a liqueur, you’ll note that on the bottle it is actually described by the generic common name “Irish Cream Liquor”, and that a complete list of its ingredients appear on the back label. Pimms (a “gin based aperitif”) and Sake are other examples (in addition to a whole host of brightly coloured syrupy liquors) or spirits that don’t fit neatly into the established categories.

Even the world of beer is not safe from the long arm of the Regulations. The term “lager” raises another liquor labelling law peculiarity. Beer, which has a standard form under the Regulations may also be described by the common names “ale”, “stout” and “porter” (thus not requiring any further description) but not “lager.” Next time you’re at your local liquor store take a closer look at the beer cans on display and you’ll notice for example that Persephone Brewing Company’s Goddess Golden Ale can be sold without the word “beer” appearing on the can whereas Howe Sound’s “Lager” also contains the common name “beer” on the label.

Other useful(less) bits of liquor labelling trivia are as follows:

  • The “common name” of the alcoholic beverage must appear on the label in English as well as French (unless the “common name” is one of the prescribed common names considered bilingual under the Regulations such as Bourbon or Aquavit).
  • As mentioned in Part 1, alcoholic beverages are usually exempt from carrying a nutritional facts label. This exemption is lost in certain situations, such as when a “nutrient content” claim is made or when an unstandardized alcoholic beverage contains certain added sweeteners like sucralose or aspartame.
  • Through long-established practice most consumers understand “light” in the context of beer to be a reference to lower alcohol content. Therefore unlike other nutritional claims, no further qualification of “light” is required on labels and in advertisements of those products provided that “light” is not used to refer to some other aspect or characterization of the product, and the percentage of alcohol by volume appears prominently on the principal display panel of the label. However “light” in relation to rum is treated differently. In the rum context “light” is recognized as a description of colouring and flavour, and the same exception to nutritional labelling requirements applies.
  • The Food and Drug Regulations prohibit claims regarding the age of gin (unless the declaration refers exclusively to time the gin spent in “suitable containers”).
  • Because the standard composition for vodka does not provide for the addition of sugar or other sweetening agents the description “dry” is potentially misleading and should be avoided.
  • The Consumer Packaging and Labelling Regulations only requires a declaration of “geographic origin” rather than “country of origin” which is why in rums particularly you will see them described as “imported from the Caribbean” rather than a specific country.

As the craft beer and spirit industry in British Columbia continues to grow, the calls for more regulations (call them “restrictions” or “protections” – depending on your point of view) on the use of terms like “craft” or “micro brewery” are getting louder. Indeed we have already seen certain designations develop in the distilling sector, and wine in British Columbia has a well established regulatory regime in place. But is this always for the best? Is the reward of heavier government involvement worth the risk of too much restriction on innovation and creativity?

*Alcohol & Advocacy publishes articles for information purposes only. They are not a substitute for legal advice, and persons requiring such advice should consult legal counsel.

Dan Coles
Retired bartender. Young lawyer. From the East, living in the West. Interested in British Columbia's producers and purveyors of wine, beer and spirits.

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