Whisky – Premium Progression

Premium Progression


Whisky sales are largely flat in the Canadian market. The gains all come from better brands and niche entries


Canadians love their whisky. In fact, 30 percent of Canada’s liquor sales fall to this brown spirit with more than 70 percent coming from domestic product. Consider that last year the LCBO sold in excess of $532 million worth of Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Canadian whisky. Of this, nearly $375 million was earned on sales of domestic entries such as Wiser’s, Windsor, and Alberta Premium.


This said, whisky has been taking a bit of whacking thanks to the gains being made by vodka where steady 10 per cent growth has been the standard. The overall market for whisky is now considered flat with sales in the range of 5 million cases. This translates into 3.7 million cases Canadian whisky, 910,000 Scotch and approximately 300,000 bourbon and Irish.


“The real gains have been made on the better labels,” says Mark Thorne of Corby Distilleries, the leading force in Canada’s whisky market with brands that include Wiser’s, Chivas Bros., and The Glenlivet. “In the over $40.00 bottle range there are gains of 11 per cent in the market showing that people are willing to trade up for a better drinking experience,” he says. 


To take advantage of this trend, Corby has introduced a number of new entries in the premium and super premium sectors. For example, new is a 16-year-old The Glenlivet Nadurra scotch. Offered at cask strength of 57.8 %ABV (alcohol by volume), the whisky is non chill filtered and offers a wealth of unique flavour and nose characteristics.


Corby has also brought forward a 16-year-old Longmorin scotch whisky. Also non chill filtered, the Longmorin is 48 % ABV and is a great compliment to the 15 year old currently on the retail shelves.


“We’ve also just launched a Chivas 25 that is remarkable,” says Thorne. He describes the whisky as being a replica of the original retail brand sold by the Chivas Bros. back in 1909. The whisky was launched globally last year, but Canada has only now been able to secure a stock of just 400 bottles for the country.


Also new is a Highland Park 40 year old that is marketed in Canada by Maxxium. While some are able to offer limited entries like Chivas 25, Highland Park is blessed with a wealth of aged spirit. As a result they have been able to launch a permanent addition to the line, albeit a rather expensive one at $2000 a bottle, rather than a limited release that ends up in collections rather than in glassware and on palates.


Scotch aside, Corby has also added to its Wiser’s Canadian whisky portfolio. In conjunction with Whisky Live and the LCBO’s October whisky promotions they rolled out Wiser’s Small Batch, a 43.4 % ABV  full flavour, full finish beauty. According to Thorne the new Wiser’s is mirrored on the qualities of the original 1857 JP Wisers recipe where a percentage of the distillate is held in virgin oak to max the vanillas and oak character of the spirit. 


To help drive sales, Corby has sent tasting teams out across the country. According to Thorn they will make 90 stops at licensed establishments from St. Johns to Victoria. “The idea is to raise the level of appreciation and help staff do a better job selling quality sprits,” he says noting a recipe that the teams have been offering – Small Batch Cherry Fire – With a shot of Wiser’s Small Batch offer a cherry rolled in rough cracked pepper. The pepper opens the taste buds and the cherry activates the sweet receptors at the tip of the tongue. The result is an explosion of flavour, he says.


“We have also been working on our web presence and have launched www.thewiserhood.com to offer still more to consumers and patrons. The site which is monikered as the Society for Uncompromising Men is a clubby tongue in cheek offering targeted to the key male whisky drinker. Inside is a lot of product knowledge and various offers to keep the brand top of mind and help it maintain its leadership in the market. Wiser’s commands sales of 681,000 cases last year. This compares with Crown Royal’s 625,000 case sales and CC’s 456,000 cases sales, the only other brands to come close to Wisers.


Another player in the market that is stirring things up is Phillips Distilling. New this year is their Union Whisky, a blend of Kentucky bourbon and Canadian whisky.


“Nobody is doing anything like this,” says Cam Matches, who heads up Phillips’ Canadian efforts from his office in Vancouver. “Union represents the best of the North American whisky tradition in one bottle,” he says, remarking further that Union Whisky is available in three formats – original, vanilla and cherry.


“Union Whisky is smooth and appeals to not just traditional whisky drinkers, but to those people who may have found whiskies too harsh in the past,” says Matches, adding that at the recent Rocky Mountain Food & Wine Show they sold out of the brand in the first day of the event.


According to Matches bourbons are showing well in Canada’s whisky trade with sales that are up slightly over last year. Doug Robb agrees. Robb is Vice President Sales with Edmonton-based River Valley Beverage Group, a company that prides itself on their innovative product assortment.


Robb reports they are rolling out Evan Williams Bourbon, a sour mash that has a a lot of attributes. Distilled in Kentucky by Heaven Hill, Evan Williams is a 10 year old single barrel product where each barrel is slightly unique.


River Valley is also importing Bernheim Original Straight Wheat Whisky from the US. Another in Heaven Hill’s considerable portfolio, Wheat Whisky is produced in small batches at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville Kentucky. “This whisky is very smooth at 43 per cent and with its sophisticated flavour and approach it will work well with the Canadian pallet,” says Robb, commenting that it sells as a super premium in the $60 to $70 range.


Rounding out an already well rounded assortment of new products at River Valley is The Wild Geese Irish Whiskey. This label offers a smooth and complex single malt limited edition as well as three blended entries that promise to turn a few heads. According to Robb, Irish is still underdeveloped in Canada, but growing well thanks to brands like market leading Jameson’s an entry level Irish that is strongly marketed.


Indeed, the marketing and return to tradition as patrons seek quality beverage experiences has operators and retailers turning to whisky as an area where they can shine. Consider The Strath Ale, Wine and Spirits Merchants in Victoria where they offer more than 500 whiskies every day.


“If you are going to offer a whisky program, do it well,” says the store’s GM Easha Rayel. She suggests Ardbeg and The Balvenie as must haves for any back bar. And, while, they don’t sell too much in the way of bourbons, she gives a nod to Knob Creek Bourbon, a Kentucky small batch whisky from Jim Beam, as a fine example of American distiller’s craft. 


“To go that extra step product knowledge is important for staff as well as the customer. All our staff are trained in the whisky arts and we interact with our customers, many of whom are highly experienced and knowledgeable on spirits. There are also a number of whisky tastings and shows that are great places to get to know more about products,” she says, remarking that last year purchasers lined up outside their store beginning at 7:00 am for tickets to the annual Victoria Whisky Festival. This year the fourth annual event is January 23-25, Hotel Grand Pacific.


What does all the education and awareness do for the trade? Doug Robb concludes that it all adds up to greater quality and customer satisfaction. “The back bars are getting better and the chains are stepping up and raising the bar still further with more selection and a better understanding of what goes into a great cocktail. There is no doubt that Canadians know and appreciate whisky, its just that now they are starting to know and appreciate better labels. This is where the opportunities lie,” he says.



Kelly Grey- Writer Extrordinaire



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