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Canadian Craft Distiller Forty Creek Seeks Major Growth Under Campari’s Ownership

August 6, 2015

Grimsby, Ontario-Based Forty Creek Distillery was founded in 1992 by John Hall, a winemaker who set out to restore the reputation of Canadian whisky by focusing on flavor, pot still distillation and high-quality cooperage. Last year Forty Creek was acquired by Gruppo Campari for US$168 million (C$185.6m). While Hall remains Forty Creek’s chairman and whisky maker, Campari has been retooling the brand’s U.S. positioning. Previously established in about 20 U.S. states, Forty Creek is now available nationwide, spearheaded by Texas and other southern markets. U.S. volume in 2014 was 63,000 cases, according to Impact Databank.

Campari’s first year of ownership has focused on realigning distribution and establishing a national footprint. The Forty Creek range includes four main offerings: the core Barrel Select ($21 a 750-ml.), Copper Pot Reserve ($29), Double Barrel Reserve ($55) and Confederation Oak Reserve ($64.99). The company has taken price in most U.S. markets, bringing Barrel Select up to the national average of $21. Andrew Floor, vice president of marketing for dark spirits at Campari America, concedes that the price hike caused volume losses in a few markets, but adds that Forty Creek’s overall sales were flat in the first 12 months under Campari’s ownership. “We’ve now built the foundations, and it’s time to start accelerating,” Floor says.

Notwithstanding its critical acclaim, Forty Creek has been saddled with Canadian whisky’s lackluster image. “U.S. consumers perceive Canadian whisky as being benign, smooth, easy-drinking and, unfortunately, relatively cheap,” Floor says, noting that the average price in the category is only $11, according to Nielsen. “Bartenders and the trade initially assumed Forty Creek had a similar profile, but the brand has piqued interest because of its flavor, complexity and its parallels with Bourbon.”

Texas is Forty Creek’s biggest market by a large margin. “Barrel Select has really hit the mark, especially in our more suburban and rural locations,” says Kevin Stein, Austin regional manager at the Texas retailer Twin Liquors. “We’re also seeing the higher marques of Forty Creek be very successful. Double Barrel Reserve is (the line’s) best seller in Austin.”

Forty Creek also does well in Louisiana, Arkansas and Georgia, but has yet to become established in major markets like New York, California and Illinois. “The fact that we haven’t had a presence there is exciting, because there’s huge growth potential,” Floor says. “Mixologists are looking for something new, and Forty Creek has the potential to lead a Canadian whisky revival.”

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