While it may come as a surprise to many, Canada offers a lot more than the Arctic Express, hockey players and police in jodphurs, red coats and wide-brimmed hats, riding horses.
A lifetime ago, when I was tending bar in upstate New York to help pay for college, I got more calls for rye and ginger, Seven and Seven, Labatt Blue and Molson Canadian than anything else. Now, a generation later, Canadian whisky and beer are popular in more than border towns in the Northeast and Midwest. And even Canadian wines are coming into their own.
Like with everything else about our neighbor to the north, we tend to take Canadian beer, spirits and wines for granted. But they’re big business. Canadian whisky is the fourth largest volume category in the spirits industry. Labatt Blue is the third best-selling imported beer in the U.S. Canadian ice wines are recognized as among the world’s best.
Consumer trends suggest that these products have a lot of opportunity for growth. Consumers are looking for more variety, established brands, quality and mixability among other things, and many Canadian products fill the bill.
The imported beer category continues to grow at a fast clip, far outpacing the industry as a whole. Canadian beers have shared some of that growth because of their import status. They also offer a potential advantage — they have a lower price point and lighter taste profile than many European imports, which can make them more accessible and more profitable.
“Canadian beer is big here,” said Sue Jeffers, owner of Stub & Herb’s, Minneapolis. “Our beer of the month this month is Labatt, which we support with POS, a discounted price and sometimes T-shirts or glassware.”
Labatt Blue saw growth in the low double digits last year, and is on the same track this year. “We’re seeing additional success with Blue across the country, but particularly in the northeast and upper midwest as it becomes known as the number-three import,” said Bryan Semkuley, vice president marketing for Labatt USA. “We’re seeing immediate pick-up in trial where we’re getting new distribution.”
The brand brought back its Hockey Challenge this winter, sponsoring local recreational hockey tournaments culminating in regional championships. This year, the program has been supported by the Labatt “bear” with a TV spot that has played both locally and nationally.
Labatt Blue also kicks off the 10th year of its “Outfitter” program, featuring outdoor merchandise, in May. This year, the brand is promoting “Summer Hours,” particularly Friday afternoon happy hours.
Labatt Blue Light has been on fire of late. The brand has been growing in excess of 30 percent annually in recent years, and now is the second largest Canadian import. Blue Light will get new ad support this year, and will join with Blue as an extended part of the Outfitters program. The Blue Light “deck” will travel with the Labatt Blue “lodge,” a mobile promotion that tours several markets in the summer.
Molson is gearing back up after seeing sales decline in recent years. After a year under an import deal with Coors Brewing, Molson USA has put a new sales team in place, switched its focus to Molson Canadian and Canadian Light from Molson Ice and Molson Golden, and has completely revamped its advertising and promotional strategy.
“We’ve made the brand a priority and learned from what we’ve done in Canada,” said Steve Breen, vice president marketing, Molson USA. “We also have more salespeople dedicated to on-premise accounts.”
The brand has four major promotions scheduled this year, starting with “Chiller Beach Party” in March. The promotion offers consumers a chance to win trips to South Beach, Fla., in May for a concert in the snow on the beach. A spring “Snow Links” promo features trips to Las Vegas to play golf in the snow. And “Summer Snow Jams” will showcase concerts in major markets such as Boston, Detroit and Buffalo.
To show how cool the brand really is, Molson plans to truck in snow for all the events. All the promotions will be supported with tv and radio.
“It shows that Molson’s back,” Breen said. “On-premise is critical to our future. We want to show that we have programs that will continue to get better.”
Canada’s third major brew, Moosehead, has been quietly repositioning itself for the past several years, regaining both image and higher pricing. It’s “Heed the Call” campaign has helped it achieve double-digit growth for the past three years.
NOT YOUR FATHER’S WHISKY
The Canadian whisky category, which was in slow decline for nearly two decades, has stabilized in the past few years. Recently, there has been more activity in the category as distillers see new opportunities.
“It’s the number-four volume category in distilled spirits, which surprises people,” said Chris Gretchko, group brand director at Fortune Brands. “There are a lot of good growth brands in the category. They’ve been part of people’s lives. There are lots of loyal consumers out there.”
“We need to remind ourselves that this is the highest call category in the spirits industry,” agreed Ed Gualtieri, executive vice president marketing for Barton Brands. “Only about 20 percent is still well business.”
While the category sees most of its volume consumed by an older generation, younger consumers are beginning to try Canadian whisky.
“New drinkers often are aware of brands through the older generation, so there’s an initial emotional appeal,” Gretchko said. “But they’re taking it on their own terms, adding mixers instead of drinking it straight.”
Often referred to as rye whisky (which must be at least 51 percent rye), Canadian whisky is usually made from a mash of corn, wheat, barley and rye, giving it qualities of Scotch, Irish and bourbon whiskies. Aged for a minimum of three years and blended to produce consistent taste from year to year, Canadian whisky is usually very light in taste compared to Scotch or bourbon.
“The category has the potential to break out because Canadian is a light whisky,” Gualtieri said. “As younger consumers age, they’re looking to move from vodka to something more flavorful like a whisky, but not heavy like bourbon or Scotch. Promoting mixed drinks may be the way to get them to drink Canadian whisky.”
Because it does have a light flavor profile, Canadian whisky is very mixable, which many brands do promote. The major brands are putting a renewed effort behind advertising campaigns to raise awareness among both loyal and new consumers.
Crown Royal is rolling out four new ad executions this year, mixing them up with old favorites that have been running for years.
Windsor Canadian ran its “Ultimate Ice Fishing House” contest in Minnesota again this winter, and sponsors a lot of local activities such as sporting events and country music fests in key markets. On-premise kits that support these events include banners and other POS.
Canadian Mist kicked off a new campaign in January. “Taste Canada’s Best” features shots of some of Canada’s most magnificent scenery. The focus is on relaxation as well as the brand’s great taste.
Canadian Club also is making a push to reposition itself, breaking new outdoor and radio advertising this year, along with promotions geared to on-premise accounts. The brand is currently sponsoring professional billiards player Jeanette Lee in a tournament tour that culminates in a national tournament in Vegas this April. This spring, the brand launches the “Tia Carerre Poker Tournament” in 15 markets. Consumers will be able to enter a sweepstakes for a trip to the finals in New Orleans in August.
Many brands hope that increased awareness of the category also will draw attention to new above-premium brands. Several producers have introduced upgraded products in recent years, which are more likely to appeal to brand-conscious young consumers. Crown Royal Reserve, V.O. Gold, Black Velvet Reserve and Canadian Club Sherry Cask are just a few of the super-premiums now vying for a spot in consumers’ portfolios.
“We found a sensational Canadian whisky — Tangle Ridge — that we carry now,” said Arnie Millan, owner of Avenue One, Seattle. “A lot of the local restaurants help each other out and trade ideas. We’re the only one around that carries it, so other owners come in to drink it. When customers ask for Canadian whisky, we try to turn them on to it.”
Millan also likes to turn his customers on to Canadian wines when he can, too.
“Canada has four or five major wine regions now producing decent pinot noir, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet,” he said. “We did a Canadian ice wine tasting not too long ago. They’re very rich, gorgeous wines, very viscous with a long finish and good acidity so they’re not too cloying.”
In the Northwest, Canadian wines are most likely to come from the Okanagon valley in British Columbia, Millan said, while the eastern half of the United States would more likely get wines from vineyards in Ontario.
“American consumers are completely unaware of the variety and quality of wines coming out of Canada,” said Alan Shayne, president of Spirit Imports, Inc., Sunrise, Fla. “The quality of wines like from places like Summerhill Estates are extraordinary.”
Shayne likened the Canadian wine industry to those of Australia or South Africa 20 years ago, producing very good, but virtually unknown wines. “I see Canada over the next 10 years becoming a real factor in the U.S. wine business,” he said.
No matter what form it takes, beer wine or spirits, Canadian beverage alcohol products should definitely be on your bar menu.
The first ice wines, like many great inventions, were probably an accident. Grapes left on the vine too long risk an early frost. Late Eighteenth Century vintners in Franconia, Germany, discovered that a freeze concentrated the sugar and flavor in grapes, resulting in a strong, sweet wine often served with dessert.
Some of the growing regions in Canada offer ideal conditions for producing ice wine, and some of the world’s best now come from Canadian vineyards.
Most ice wine in Canada is produced under Vintners Quality Alliance regulations. Wine must be produced naturally, which means grapes cannot be artificially frozen.
Vidal and Riesling are the most common grape varieties left for this late harvest, and usually have to be vigorously defended against birds and animals. When the grapes are ready, they’re hand-picked and fermented for weeks. The frozen grapes have a lower yield than grapes harvested earlier, resulting in as little as one bottle from an entire vine. Most are sold only in half-bottles.
While they can be difficult to get and very expensive, Canadian ice wines can be well worth it. Some vineyards producing ice wines include Hainle Vineyards, Henry of Pelham, Hillebrand Estates, Inniskillin Vineyards, Kittling Ridge and Vineland Estates. Ask your distributor whether any are available in your area.