Is there such a thing as a free beer in Toronto?

Is there such a thing as a free beer in Toronto?
By Melissa Wilson
OpenFile Toronto
July 3, 2012

“Would you like some free beer?”

This was the question posed to a friend and I recently, as we strolled through the Financial District killing time and enjoying the first really nice day of the year. The beer peddler was decked out in Corona gear and behind her was a sectioned-off parking lot, packed with people and music and, later, confetti. Bowls of limes lined a makeshift bar where passersby were, indeed, handed a free bottle of Corona to drink.

Both off the clock, my friend and I, of course, said “Heck, yes!” and cheersed. Still, it was 5 p.m. on a Thursday; street parties and free booze are hardly the norm in Toronto. Later, I saw a friend of mine comment that someone had handed her some free Budweiser on a street corner (to be consumed later). Since liquor laws in Ontario are notoriously strict, it did get me thinking: What kind of hoops does one have to jump through to hand out free booze in Toronto?

In the case of the free Budweiser, the rules are fairly straightforward. Since the sample is being provided for consumption at home, a special permit or licence is not required. According to the Sampling Guidelines for Liquor Manufacturers from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), the manufacturer can hand out samples (to be consumed at home) to of-age individuals as long as four criteria are met:

1) The sample is given directly from the representative of the manufacturer to the individual (that is, vouchers can’t be sent through direct mailings);
2) The size of the samples does not exceed six (355 ml) bottles of beer, one (750 ml) bottle of wine or one (375 ml) bottle of spirits;
3) If given a voucher, it can only be redeemed at an authorized retail store (that is, you can’t take it to a bar and try to trade it for a mickey of Scotch); and
4) The sample is not awarded as a prize.

The rules are thorough, but reasonable. There’s also a requirement that any one person not receive more than the above maximum quantities (six-pack of beer, bottle of wine, etc.) in a given year, according to Lisa Murray, senior manager of media relations at the AGCO, who says manufacturers typically keep this in check by only holding so many sampling events in a year in the same region. “They’re not going to have 20 events in Toronto in a year,” she says. “It’s probably possible for someone to go to every place in Ontario where they’re giving away free beer, but in reality, it’s pretty unlikely.”

That only covers handing out alcohol in public. A manufacturer can’t technically give out free samples at a bar or restaurant, but can purchase individual servings of liquor to hand out to patrons free of charge. So if you’ve ever found yourself in the possession of a free shot of whisky during a night out at the bar, that’s likely what happened.

In the case of the Corona street party, though, it’s a little more complicated. The party was a “count down to summer,” says Lindsay Wilson, marketing manager of Modelo Molson Imports, and throwing it required a special occasion permit and whole lot of hoops to jump through.

“We only sampled one beer per person, and we had police and paramedics on site, so we followed all the health and safety regulations. We also served food and water, in addition to the beer,” she says. They even made sure to have cabs on hand in case anyone got a little too tipsy. Wilson says the event organizers went “above and beyond” to make sure the party was safe and above board.

“Our tagline is relax responsibly, so we take it pretty seriously.”

Overall, though, Wilson says the event was very successful. “We’ve never seen anything done before to that degree, and it was really exciting for us.”

Corona hosted the party on a private parking lot, so they negotiated a rental fee. Had it been held on City property, it might not have gone off as well, as it would have to be approved through a committee process and deemed an “event of municipal significance,” says Rosalind Dyers from the City Clerk’s office. Dyers says these tend to be big street events, like Taste of the Danforth and Pride. Since the event has to be approved by the community, it’s unlikely something like the Corona party would have been rubber-stamped. Beyond that, “if an event is in a park, it would need to get a separate parks permit in addition to the event of municipal significance designation,” says Dyers.

Though recent changes to Ontario’s alcohol laws allow large events to designate an area larger than a beer tent where people can consume alcohol, most events stick to beer tents, says Dyers, “because they have to hire more security guards, and many of them can’t afford it.”

“The new rules haven’t really made things easier.”

Still, don’t expect the laws to lighten up too much anytime soon. “Public safety is the reason for all of these things,” says Murray. “We want everyone to get home safely at night.”


Here are a few things you might not have known about Ontario’s liquor laws, and that you might be able to use to your advantage.

The minimum price that a licensed establishment can sell a drink for is $2, including tax.

Most of the time it’s illegal for a bar to give out free liquor, but there are exceptions made for special circumstances, like if it’s someone’s birthday, or if the patron experienced particularly poor service. (Something like coming in third place in a modelling competition probably wouldn’t count.)

If a drink price is advertised, it has to be available to everyone. So if a bar offers a special rate to students or women, you can go ahead and insist they give you a cheap vodka-cran as well.

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