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Craft Distillers Look To Boost Canadian Whisky Category

December 22, 2014

This past March, Gruppo Campari spent around $180 million to acquire the fast-growing Forty Creek Distillery from John Hall, a pioneer in Canadian craft whisky. Ontario-based Forty Creek’s Barrel Select, finished in Sherry casks, retails at about $22 a 750-ml., and Campari senior marketing director of brown spirits Andrew Floor has vowed to steer Barrel Select to at least $24 at retail. He’s also betting that a new label, Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve, at 43% abv and retailing at $29, will find an audience beyond its initial releases in Texas and California. Another new Forty Creek product is Double Barrel, aged longer and priced at $55, in very limited distribution so far.

Floor believes that richer blends like Double Barrel, which is finished in Bourbon barrels for a year, are key to sparking greater interest in Canadian whisky. “Canadian products have always been considered smooth, mellow and easy to drink—in other words, not very challenging,” Floor says. “The category’s low price points reflect that. But American palates have evolved quickly. People now want to taste their alcohol. Spice and heat are good. That’s why we think Forty Creek will be important.”

If that’s true, other craft distillers in Canada should be encouraged. Four years ago, Highwood Distillers in Calgary launched its White Owl whisky, and it became a strong seller in Texas at $32 a 750-ml., along with a Ginger Lime flavor at the same price. Highwood is now launching its Centennial Limited Edition, in both chocolate and maple flavors, in Canada at C$25 ($22) a 750-ml., with U.S. distribution likely coming soon.

Meanwhile, Glenora Distillers in Nova Scotia has taken Canadian pricing to unprecedented heights. The company’s Glen Breton Rare sells for C$300 ($266) in Canada and is destined for the U.S. soon. Next year, to celebrate the distillery’s 25th anniversary, a 25-year-old is planned at $500 ($443), according to executive vice president Bob Scott. “Major whisky retailers like Binny’s in Chicago and Park Avenue Liquors in New York are interested in products like these,” Scott says. Even Glenora’s core expression, the Glen Breton 10-year, sells for $80 in the U.S., he notes.

Still Waters Distillery, based near Toronto, offers its Stalk & Barrel Single Malt, with no age statement, at $70 at retail in the U.S. That product is being supplemented by the release of Stalk & Barrel Rye at about $75. Owner and master distiller Barry Bernstein says rye whiskies increasingly are finding an audience in Canada. “We have an advantage in that the rye in Canada grows more slowly because of the colder climate,” Bernstein says. “As a result, it has more flavor and character than other warmer-climate ryes.”

At Van Gogh Imports, the preoccupation is with different finishes. The company debuted its Canadian Maple Rye more than two years ago at $29 a 750-ml., but since then has put its money behind Tap Rye Port Finished at $40 and its latest, the Tap Rye Sherry Finished 8-year-old, also priced at $40. Van Gogh chief executive Norman Bonchick is considering an all-rye whisky—rare in Canada—as his next release.

But Canada has yet to see the flood of craft distillers that the U.S. market has experienced. Davin de Kergommeaux, a whisky writer based in Ottawa who authored the book “Canadian Whisky,” identifies only 30 craft distilleries in the entire country, and says production is much more tightly regulated than in the U.S. In addition, about 70% of all Canadian whisky is sold in the U.S., where imports will face stiff competition from the rising number of domestic craft players.

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