If you haven’t been in Montreal long, you’re probably still learning your way around the city. Some things obviously work differently here in French Canada. One of the unusual local policies concerns when and where you can buy or consume alcohol. Whether it’s been an especially difficult week or perhaps a day worth celebrating, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional alcoholic refreshment. But French Canada, which includes Montreal and all of Quebec, provincial law has some very specific regulations about the sale and consumption of beer, wine and liquor. So where can you get alcohol in Montreal?
Anyone over the age of 18 can purchase beer and wine from a grocery store in Montreal, or from a corner store, also known as a dépanneur. To purchase hard alcohol and spirits, as well as a wider selection of wines and specialty beers, one has to go to a SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec). There are more than 20 SAQ locations in the city of Montreal. You can also go into a bar for a full range of libations. And most restaurants also sell beer, wine and sometimes hard spirits.
Can you buy alcohol in grocery stores in Montreal?
Montreal grocery stores DO sell beer and wine. This is the easiest way to stock your fridge or your cellar with alcoholic beverages. Another convenient option is to drop into your local dépanneur, a corner market or convenient store with a small selection of grocery items as well as beer and wine. The dépanneur is something of a local institution in Montreal, a local market serving the immediate neighbourhood, where shoppers are more likely see familiar faces and run into friends and neighbours.
But if you’re talking about hard alcohol, drinks stronger than beer and wine, then you have to go to a SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec). At these state-run businesses, you can find a full range of alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, coolers and all types of hard liquor. The strongest alcohol available in the Province of Quebec is 94%, or 188 proof, NGS (natural grain spirit).
What is a SAQ?
SAQ stands for Société des alcools du Québec, which translates to Quebec Alcohol Corporation. This state-owned corporation, or Crown Corporation, manages and oversees the sale and distribution of alcohol within Quebec. SAQ has more than 400 retail outlets across the province, and more than 20 on the island of Montreal.
The state control of hard liquor sales is pretty standard throughout most of Canada. At the same time, most Canadian provinces allow for the sale of domestic beers and wines by private businesses.
SAQ operates a range of different stylestore fronts.
- SAQ (Classique): operating in smaller towns with only one SAQ store
- SAQ Express: located in busy city centres, offering a smaller selection of top-selling products, often with longer business hours
- SAQ Sélection: larger, full-service stores with greater selection
- SAQ Signature: only two of these exclusive stores in Montreal and Quebec City with high-end products
- SAQ Dépôt: warehouse-style stores with bulk packages
- SAQ.com: operating online for mail order purchases
Find the nearest locations with the SAQ online store directory.
Does Montreal have time limits on when you can buy alcohol?
Alcohol sales can begin at 7 a.m. in the Province of Quebec. Grocery stores and dépanneurs must stop selling alcohol at 11 p.m. Last call in bars and restaurants is 3 a.m. This is a matter of debate in the province, because many store owners would like to be able to sell alcohol as late as the bars.
Note: Many establishments also offer Happy Hour Specials between 5 and 7 pm, also known simply as 5 à 7. Check with individual bars and restaurants for details.
SAQ stores have more restrictive hours. By law, the can operate from as early as 9 am to as late as 11 pm. But most locations close early, commonly at 6 pm on Monday -Wednesday, 9 pm on Thursday and Friday, and 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday. Hours vary by location, so call ahead or check online first. COVID-19 is also effecting the days and hours of operation for many businesses.
Check store hours and locations with the SAQ online store directory.
Can you drink alcohol in public in Montreal?
The Province of Quebec, including the city of Montreal, has very strict laws prohibition the consumption of alcohol in public. An exception, unique to the Province of Quebec, allows picnickers to consume low-percentage alcohol (beer and wine) outdoors when accompanied by food. This is something of a throwback to the region’s European heritage.
Exceptions are also possible for special events where venues obtain special permits in advance through the Régie des permis d’alcool du Québec. Otherwise, many bars, pubs and restaurants have outdoor patios and dining areas. But alcoholic beverages must remain on the premises of the establishment at all times.
Legalities: Age limits and blood alcohol in Montreal in Canada
The minimum age to buy alcohol in the Province of Quebec is 18 years old. This applies in bars, restaurants, grocery stores and SAQs. Typically, anyone who looks younger than 25 should expect to be asked for proof of the age when buying alcohol. Alberta and Manitoba have the same age limit. The minimum age to buy alcohol in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Ontario, PEI, Saskatchewan, and Yukon is 19.
The blood alcohol limit for ordinary drivers in Quebec is 0.08. The limit drops to 0.05 for those who operate heavy vehicles. There is zero alcohol tolerance for taxi drivers, bus drivers, minibus drivers, drivers under age 22, learning drivers, and drivers with a probationary licence.
What about the bars in Montreal?
The dynamic and diverse city of Montreal is well-known for its vivacious nightlife. Streets are lined with restaurants serving and international cuisine, and a panoply of entertainment venues feature live music on a regular basis. Along with these establishments, of course you will also find a tremendous variety of bars and pubs serving the full spectrum of alcoholic drinks.
Some of the best bars and nightlife in Montreal are along Rue Saint-Denis (Saint Denis Street). This is a major boulevard that runs north-south through the city. The Quartier Spectacle is probably the best area in central Montreal for entertainment venues, and with plenty of spots to grab a drink, whether you’re looking for a high-class cocktail bar or a dimly lit hole in the wall.
Here’s a short list of some of the most popular bars in the city. Please note that the hours of operation are subject to change to the unpredictable impact of COVID-19.
10 SPOTS TO DOWN A DRINK IN MONTREAL
- Bar Cloakroom: Stylish speakeasy-style bar featuring specialty cocktails in a cozy, dimly lit space.
- Bar le Mal Necessaire: Stylish, tiki-style bar serving exotic drinks, with DJ music, outdoor seating & a 1970s vibe.
- Bistro a Jojo: Longtime late-night club offering booze & nightly live blues & rock bands in a boisterous setting.
- The Coldroom: Gourmet cocktails mixed in a speakeasy-style hideaway with exposed-brick walls & wood beams.
- Dieu du Ciel: Bustling neighbourhood pub with homegrown house brews & exotic imports, plus a patio & light fare.
- Lab, Comptoir à Cocktails: Decor harking back to the Prohibition era creates an old-school vibe at this mixologist-centric bar.
- Pub Saint-Elisabeth: Celebrated bi-level pub known for a hideaway terrace, offering cocktails, microbrews & casual grub.
- Le Réservoir: Popular brewpub providing draft microbrews, global tapas with vegetarian options & a rooftop patio.
- Vin Vin Vin: Cosy, casual wine bar.
Wherever and whenever you end up drinking, please do so responsibly, never drink and drive.
At ARIANNE Relocation, we’ve been helping students, families and professional move to and get settled in Canada for more than 20 years. We help our clients find housing, organize day care and navigate the unfamiliar ways and customs of living in a new country. To learn more about life in Montreal, check out some of these useful links and articles.
PHOTO CREDIT: A formidable selection of alcohol and spirits (Unsplash)