Q&A: Jesse Razaqpur, the artisanal whiskey distiller who sued the LCBO

Q&A: Jesse Razaqpur, the artisanal whiskey distiller who sued the LCBO

Jesse Razaqpur is a Bay Street lawyer by day, artisanal hooch maker by night. His latest move: suing the LCBO for outrageous price gouging

Jesse Razaqpur
(Image: Erin Leydon)

You and your partner, Charles Benoit, run the Toronto Distillery Company in the Junction. You recently sued the LCBO, claiming that they charge an unconstitutional markup on the alcohol you sell in your shop. What’s your case?
The LCBO charge a 140 per cent markup, which is fine for the bottles in their stores. But for the ones we sell ourselves, we pay for our trucks, employees, bricks and mortar. We believe that constitutes taxation without representation, because Queen’s Park never legislated it.

How much do you get after the markup?
We sell each bottle for $33.34 and have to pay $19.51 to the LCBO. That leaves us $13.83 to cover our overhead, including the cost of making the alcohol—buying the grain, the bottles, the corks. At the end of the day, there’s very little left over.

Sadly for you, the provincial court sided with the LCBO in early April. On a scale of resigned to aghast, how surprised were you by the verdict?
We were disappointed. The judge ruled that since we signed a contract with the LCBO to get our licence, the alcohol was their property and they could impose whatever markup they wanted.

Are you planning to fight it?
There are solid grounds for an appeal. We were forced to enter into the contract—if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a retail licence. We haven’t decided yet, but either way, this case did a lot of good. The Wynne government announced that they intend to replace the markup for distillery retail stores with a legislated tax. We lost the battle here, but we may be winning the war.

So which came first: the booze business or the bootlegger fashion?
I grew the moustache in the summer of 2008, between finishing law school at Osgoode and starting at a firm in New York. The day before I began, I met with one of the lawyers who recruited me. She was horrified. “You are not starting at this firm with that,” she said. I shaved the moustache off but grew it back when I returned to Canada in 2011.

I imagine a strategic moustache twirl could play to your advantage in court.
It’s worked before. The moustache looks good with the gowns, too.

What was the inspiration?
It was Lord Kitchener—the “I want you” guy in ads for the British army. I was looking at the poster one day and thought, wow, that’s a great moustache.

And where do you get your suits?
I’ve been going to my tailor, Bal, at his shop behind city hall for years. I’m the kind of person who’ll tell him, “I want my lapels to be this wide, I want a ticket pocket here.” I’ve probably annoyed him a lot over the years.

How did you start making moonshine?
It began with my partner, Charles, who is a childhood friend. He’s an international trade lawyer and had been doing work for the American Distilling Institute. We’d both always loved spirits and thought, why isn’t anyone making small-batch whiskey here? It turned out the legal barriers were hard to navigate. Luckily, we’re both lawyers.

You operate out of the Junction, which was dry until 1997. Now it’s a hub for indie breweries. Why is it so popular?
It’s one of the few areas left in the city that still has the appropriate industrial zoning for a distillery. Our building was the Canada Bread factory up until the year we moved in. Then it was subdivided, and we saw a bunch of interesting businesses coming in: we have a brewery next door, a guy who makes handcrafted English leather products, an online poster company.

You make the standards—whiskey, rye and gin—but you also have some funky products. Tell me about the beet alcohol.
It has a unique, earthy smell—like a field after it’s rained. It mixes well with ginger beer and lime. We call it a beet and stormy.

I’d drink that. Any failed experiments?
We tried a pumpkin-spiced whiskey, but it didn’t give us the flavours we wanted. We also did a sweet potato whiskey. It smelled like caramelized vegetables—quite pleasant—but we couldn’t get sweet potatoes at a price that made sense.

You and Charles are both still practising law—you do criminal, he still does international trade. Any plans to give it up if things go well?
This is our baby, but there’s nothing like standing in a courtroom cross-examining a witness. I’m happy to be the gentleman barrister who runs a whiskey distillery.

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