So you want to become an Import Agent?

All imported beverage alcohol sold in British Columbia must be registered with the Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) and represented by an agent licensed by the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch who holds a valid letter of authorization from the manufacturer.

Prior to 2017 British Columbia manufacturers of beer, wine and spirits were required to obtain a separate agent licence to market their products within the province, or retain a licensed third-party agent. This is no longer the case; under the new Liquor Control and Licensing Act manufacturers can now solicit and take orders for their own products without additional licensing requirements. However, some manufacturers continue to retain the services of a third-party agent (e.g. smaller breweries or distilleries in remote regions who require representation in Vancouver. Others may simply prefer to rely on the expertise and industry connections of existing agents rather than employing their own sales and marketing team).

The role of liquor agent in British Columbia is somewhat unusual: agents cannot directly sell to the public or import products.  Only the Liquor Distribution Branch is permitted to commercially import alcohol in British Columbia, and only licensed establishments and retail stores can sell alcohol directly to the public.

So what exactly do import agents do?

Liquor agents have exclusive rights to promote and market their products throughout British Columbia and in doing so are permitted to take wholesale orders for liquor and request and that LDB import products on their behalf. The LDB describes this process as agents facilitating the movement of products from manufacturer to customer via a “promotional strategy.”

Promotional strategies include conducting product tastings and information sessions,  purchasing advertisements, sponsoring events, and distributing branded promotional items.

An import agent may (and many do) represent a variety of brands and products, and hire employees as “marketing representatives”.  The licensee is responsible to ensure that its staff follow British Columbia’s liquor laws and the terms and conditions of the agent licence.

So who actually imports the alcohol?

The LDB along with the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch are responsible for supplying and managing the beverage alcohol industry in British Columbia.

The Liquor Distribution Act gives the LDB the sole right to purchase beverage alcohol for resale within British Columbia and from suppliers and manufacturers outside the province, in accordance with the federal Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act. Section 3 provides that:

…no person shall import… or cause to be imported… any intoxicating liquor… except such as has been purchased by or on behalf of… Her Majesty…

As the sole buyer and re-seller of liquor in the province’s mixed public-private model, the LDB is one of the largest purchasers of beverage alcohol in the world. Every year, the LDB buys alcohol from more than 1,000 Canadian and international suppliers and manufacturers, supplying product to hospitality and retail customers across the province.

Once the alcohol is imported to British Columbia it will be stored at the LDB warehouse or a bonded warehouse until it is distributed to bars, restaurants and retailers.

Role and Responsibility of Liquor Agent established by contract

In addition to the terms and conditions of licence, and the applicable statutes and regulations, the role of the liquor agent in British Columbia’s hospitality and retail sector is largely governed by contract, and a series of forms provided by the LDB.

Liquor agents have contracts with the manufacturers that they represent (who may be located in BC, other parts of Canada, or anywhere in the world), and also contracts with the LDB and others that set out the terms of how the products they represent will be imported, paid for, stored and distributed.

The following agreements and forms must be completed before a liquor agent can conduct business:

Liquor Warehouse Agreement

  • Contains the terms and conditions under which liquor is imported into BC and stored at an approved excise licensed warehouse (wine and spirits) or a custom bonded warehouse (beer) until the liquor is transferred to the LDB’s Distribution Centre or privately distributed.

Supplier Authorization Agreement

  • Identifies the agent as the sole distributor and purchaser of that brand of alcohol in BC (through the LDB).

Product Registration Form

  • Sets out product label information , allergens declaration, unit cost and packaging size etc.

Interested in becoming a liquor agent or importing liquor into British Columbia?  Need assistance navigating the licensing process, or incorporating your firm? Contact Dan Coles at Owen Bird for assistance obtaining an agent licence.

*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.