This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Alberta government getting out of the liquor retailing business.
Newcomers to Alberta may not remember the naughty nineties, when the province was ruled over by Ralph Klein, who served as the Mayor of Calgary from 1980-1989, then as Premier of Alberta from 1992-2006.
Known as King Ralph for his autocratic management style, he was a hard-drinking and hard-partying good ol’ boy, born on the wrong side of the tracks in Calgary, and eventually rose to great heights of esteem or infamy, depending on whom you ask.
One of King Ralph’s first acts as Premier was to get the Alberta Government out of the booze business, by privatizing all of the provincial liquor stores in 1993, which was considered heresy at the time.
People of a certain age may not recall the bad old days of the ALCB stores, of which there were 158 in the entire province, with 24 each in Calgary and Edmonton, with the rest distributed among the small towns. Many of those stores had been operating with few changes since Prohibition ended in Alberta way back in 1924.
If you can imagine a bleak and desolate cinderblock warehouse staffed by a single surly government clerk, you are only part of the way to a mental picture of the way things were in Alberta before 1993.
Most of the ALCB stores were open from 10am-6pm, and closed entirely on Sundays, because screw you that’s why, according to the curmudgeonly government clerks who didn’t see any reason why they should have to stay open during hours that might be convenient to the boozing public.
The government liquor stores of the day were very different than what we enjoy today. Rather than browsing the aisles and selecting the bottles you wanted, you had to fill out a little paper order form detailing which of the 3 permitted brands of beer you wanted, and the clerk behind the counter would pull your order from the off-limits warehouse in the back, and you would have to wait for your warm case of beer to slide out of a chute on rollers.
With a government monopoly in place, it was left up to a single government liquor buyer in Edmonton to make all the purchasing decisions for the entire province, which meant consumers had their choice of 3 different brands of beer, a handful of different wines, and a selection of spirits you could count on your fingers and toes.
Needless to say, beer in those days was limited to Molson and Labatt, with Bud Light being the exotic import. The province was a wine wasteland, with the wine snobs of the province joining mail-order clubs like the Opimian Society to bring in private shipments of wine from overseas.
That all changed in 1993, with all 158 of the ALCB stores being sold to private investors, and thousands more private liquor retail shops springing up almost overnight.
There were many naysayers who claimed the sky would fall and a plague of locusts would descend o’er the land if liquor retailing was placed in the hands of the free market, but those dire predictions never came to pass.
Alberta is now the envy of all other Canadian provinces, with the widest selection of beer, wine, and spirits in the country. Even the province of Ontario, with more than triple the population, has but a paltry sliver of the varied selection of hooch you may find at your local bottle shop.
Several other provinces are dipping their toes in relaxing their prohibition-era liquor laws, but none yet seem willing to give up their monopoly powers, nor the ever-growing bureaucracy that must continually expand to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy.
Ontario has recently allowed sales of beer and wine in a small selection of grocery stores, but spirits remain in the exclusive purview of the LCBO stores. Perhaps the current Ontario premier, long considered an expert on recreational pharmaceutical sales, will do the same for liquor retailing as the planned private retailers for the wacky tabaccy later this year.
The next time you visit your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant, be thankful you can pop in 7 days a week, and be thankful for a booze selection that dwarfs all other provinces in our fair country. Most of all, be thankful you only have to travel a few blocks from home instead of going all the way across town to stand in the long lineup at the old ALCB stores!