Smooth. Light. Mixable. Versatile. These product attributes are what define Canadian whisky, yet compared to some other whisky categories, Canadian doesn’t seem to get any respect. Which isn’t exactly logical since Canadian whisky is the largest whiskey segment in the U.S. market, with sales of almost 15.3 million 9-liter cases nationwide, trailing only vodka, rum and cordials & liqueurs. Indeed, people will talk all day about Scotch and bourbon, but seem to lump Canadian whisky into the vast vat of brown goods long in decline.

That decline is very real. Since 1990, Canadian whisky consumption has dropped about 25% in the U.S. But, the rate of decline has slowed dramatically over the past few years. For instance, in 2001, category sales fell just 1.2% nationwide, according to Adams Liquor Handbook 2002. In the control states, sales of Canadian whisky dropped 1.5% to almost 4.14 million mixed cases, for the last 12 months ending August 30, 2002, according to Adams Beverage Group research. Still,there are hopes among suppliers that by the end of 2002 consumption of Canadian whisky will be flat in the U.S.

Regarding the general state of the Canadian whisky category, most industry observations reflect what Kevin McCarthy, senior brand manager for Canadian Club, said: “Overall, the category has declined slightly, but as of late several brands are seeing some strong results.”

Dan Kelley, brand director of Brown-Forman’s Canadian Mist, agreed, noting that he sees sales for the entire Canadian category slightly down to flat between last year and this year. For its part Canadian Mist saw sales rise by 0.3% in 2001 to more than 2.3 million 9-liter cases nationwide, positioning the brand as the best-selling U.S. bottled Canadian whisky nationwide and second-best selling Canadian whisky overall (in the control states, Black Velvet is the top-selling Canadian, followed by Canadian Mist).

A lot of activity in the category is occurring at the high end. For example, Allied Domecq is relaunching its Canadian Club Classic in the U.S. with a new name: Classic 12 Year by Canadian Club. “We’ve seen a consumer demand for high-end products,” Canadian Club’s McCarthy said, “which, in this case, can be attributed to the quality and image of the Canadian Club brand.”

The 80 proof Classic 12 Year by Canadian Club is debuting this month in selected markets across the U.S. in 50 ml, 375 ml, 750 ml, liter and 1.75 liter packages, and will be supported with shelf talkers at retail. “This gives our core Canadian Club user another option to trade up in quality,” McCarthy stated. The relaunched brand is retailing for from $2 to $4 (depending on the market) above Canadian Club Reserve. Initially, as a consumer value-added option, Canadian Club is packaging its 6 Year and Reserve with a 50 ml on-pack of Classic 12 Year, where legal. For its part, CC Reserve featured a value-added gift pack, with glassware, for the recent holidays.

Canadian Club’s latest marketing initiative is centered around a pool challenge, with the finals taking place in Las Vegas with pool champion Jeanette Lee.

Another superpremium, Black Velvet Reserve, an 8-year-old Canadian whisky bottled in Canada, was essentially relaunched by Barton Brands in June 2002, with a new package and an upgraded label. “Black Velvet Reserve has a very smooth taste and a rich whisky character, befitting its age,” said Jack Kavanagh, vice president, marketing services at Barton. Priced higher than the regular Black Velvet, and generally just under Crown Royal pricing, Black Velvet Reserve has seen its distribution expand throughout the year. It is now available nationally. In terms of marketing support, Black Velvet Reserve is maintained as part of the brand family, but a step above. For example, in promotional support, the Black Velvet Lady appears in a black mink coat for the Reserve and a velvet gown for the regular brand. Kavanagh added that the company is launching a value-added promotion with an extra 50 ml on-pack of Black Velvet Reserve attached to a 750 ml of the same brand.

Interestingly, one of the most successful spirits brands of the past decade is a superpremium Canadian whisky: Crown Royal, now from Pernod Ricard USA. Crown Royal is the ninth best-selling spirit in the U.S. with 2001 sales of 2.75 million 9-liter cases nationwide, In the control states, Crown Royal’s sales increased 4.3% to more than 580,000 mixed cases, for the last 12 months ending August 30, 2002. The brand has been growing steadily for years in a market that has wreaked havoc with most brown spirits for two decades. How to explain this anomaly? If it were just the purple pouch then we’d be seeing different knock-offs of it hanging from store shelves across the country. Its superpremium status has something to do with its success, but there are scores of superpremium whiskies that have not come close to this brand’s performance. Yet ask any Canadian whisky marketer or a retailer why, and they’ll invariably tell you the same thing: Though it is a Canadian whisky, Crown Royal is viewed by consumers as something other than a Canadian whisky.

In general, Crown Royal has been upping its marketing budget 5% to 10% annually.

“Crown Royal is in the fortunate position of leading the trend toward superpremium products,” said Jim Lorenz, U.S. brand manager for Crown Royal and Crown Royal Special Reserve. “It transcends the Canadian whisky category. The category is stabilizing, maybe off slightly, for 2002. We will continue to see growth in Crown Royal, however, at about 3% to 5% for the foreseeable future.”

A key component of Crown Royal’s growth is support the brand receives through increased advertising and marketing expenditures. Generally, Lorenz said, “the increase is 5% to 10% in above-the-line activities in advertising and promotions.”

Lorenz noted that the “advertising and relationship marketing” are intended not only to maintain the loyalty of the brand’s core consumers, but also recruit new consumers to the brand. Indeed, the brand has been very visible on cable television lately, and is carrying through successful programs instituted under previous Seagram ownership. Lorenz pointed to the Society of the Crown, a type of “club” that was created in 1995 to provide brand information such as promotional updates, events and special offers to loyal Crown Royal customers. These contacts are made four to five times a year through direct mail or e-mail. “The Society has grown about 10% to 20% a year over time,” Lorenz said.

The brand’s website,, also announces brand events and promotions, which invariably focus on brand sponsorships such as The American Turf Race at Churchill Downs.

Upcoming Crown Royal in-store promotions include “Paint the Store Purple,” breaking in February, which emphasizes the core merchandising program through a full line of point-of-sale materials, such as case displays, shelf talkers, posters, ceiling danglers and static cling stickers.


(Mixed Cases)







% Change

Black Velvet
Barton Brands

Canadian Mist
Brown-Forman Beverages
. 644,282

Crown Royal

Canadian Club
Allied Domecq Spirits, USA

Windsor Supreme
Jim Beam Brands

Seagram’s V.O.

Canadian LTD
Barton Brands

Canadian Rich & Rare
Allied Domecq Spirits, USA

Mac Naughton
Barton Brands

Lord Calvert
Jim Beam Brands

Total Leading Brands in the Control States


Total Canadian in the Control States

(*) Last 12 months data ending 8/30.

Source: Adams Beverage Group Database from NABCA data.

Following that will be a promotion, tagged, “Bring It Home,” tied into the opening of the baseball season. “Crown Royal drinkers index high in relation to sports, especially baseball,” Lorenz added.

At almost twice the price of the regular brand, Crown Royal Special Reserve is truly an ultra-premium Canadian. In general, Lorenz said, Special Reserve whiskies are four to six years older than the base brand. “The packaging is opulent, with a cut glass bottle, a velvet bag and a richer gift carton.” Though the brands are usually shelved together, the company likes to keep them separated on the floor, and will occasionally offer to retailers special metal racks and case card displays specifically for the Special Reserve.

“Similar to other premium whisky categories, including single malt Scotch and small batch bourbon, we have seen growth in the premium Canadian whisky category this year,” said Heather Mitchell PR manager, Super Premiums & Cordials, Jim Beam Brands, Co. “The high-end of the Canadian whisky category is just beginning to emerge with brands like Tangle Ridge. Consumers are becoming more educated and discerning about the spirits they drink, especially whisky. Age and smoothness are key and Tangle Ridge is well positioned for future growth.”

Mitchell noted that “Tangle Ridge is clearly differentiated in the category by a proprietary process called Double Casked. Tangle Ridge is aged twice as long as most other Canadian whiskies at 10 years, for the smoothest taste. We begin with a base of 100% rye, the whisky is aged for 10 years and then we dump it, add a bit of sherry and vanilla and recask until the master distiller deems it ready.”

“Canadian whisky’s profile is that it’s the lightest-tasting of the brown goods; easy to drink, smooth and lends itself to a variety of mixed drinks,” Canadian Mist’s Kelley said. “It’s often mixed with Coke or Sprite.”

He added: “We feature a series of branded drinks, such as the Canadian Manhattan, Mist Tea, Mocha Mist and others.” In fact, he noted that Mist has used drink recipe booklets and neckers to promote the brand’s mixability. Kelley said that the brand is launching a co-pack (only in California) that includes Canadian Mist and 7-Up.

In addition, Canadian Mist has been promoting the brand through its “Taste Canada’s Best” theme on case cards, shelf talkers and other p-o-s. In the first quarter the brand is highlighting several ice hockey-themed point-of-sale treatments, tabbed “Canadian Mist On Ice.” Using the image of a hockey goalie and Mist’s 1.75 Easy Grip Bottle, the company is offering double-sided case cards, case glorifiers, shelf talkers and snipes. There’s also a mass display featuring an inflatable zamboni as well as sweepstakes and refund offers.

Black Velvet, from Barton Brands, ended 2001 up slightly (0.1%), with sales of more than 1.83 million 9-liter cases nationwide. “We outperformed the category,” said Jack Kavanagh. “This year (2002) looks as if we’ll end up flat.”

The key selling point for the brand, Kavanagh said, is its smooth taste, which allies nicely with its “Smooth as Velvet” tagline. “It has a very palatable taste and mixes well, especially Black Velvet and cola, which helps tremendously with the young adult demographic.”

Black Velvet Reserve was re-launched last year with a new package and upgraded label.

When Barton acquired Black Velvet several years ago, the brand had lost focus, Kavanagh noted, and since then the company has worked hard to bring it back, by investing in a variety of promotional and pricing programs. The Black Velvet Lady has returned as an icon for the brand, while the company maintains thematic point-of-sale programs throughout the year, with the main efforts coming during the spring and holiday seasons.

Black Velvet is expanding its special event marketing program, tying in with the International Professional Rodeo Association as a corporate sponsor. Beginning this month, the finals take place in Oklahoma City, and there’ll be a naming of a Miss Black Velvet Lady Rodeo (not to be confused with the national Miss Black Velvet Lady).

Kavanagh noted that MacNaughton, one of Barton’s Canadian value brands, introduced new gift packaging for the holidays this past fall. Another value brand, Canadian LTD maintained its regional strengths throughout the Midwest.

Regarding Windsor Canadian, Joe Karcz, director of integrated marketing, at Jim Beam Brands, Co., noted that “the brand is distilled and aged in the clean crisp air of the Canadian Rockies, and is the way our consumers reward themselves and relax at the end of the day. While national in nature, Windsor has a number of very strong core markets. Our support behind the brand reflects this, placing added support in the markets Windsor does best.”

In the first quarter, Canadian Club is debuting a very high quality PET bottle with metal closures for several of the brand’s sizes. “These are high-image, very durable, premium-looking bottles, in keeping with the Canadian Club image,” senior brand manager McCarthy noted. He added that the company is making available three-case racks to be situated near check-out registers for incremental impulse purchases.

“Sales of Canadian Club are always improved as a result of the merchandising displays we provide, For example, our holiday pole toppers have been very successful for retailers,” McCarthy said.

Canadian Mist featured a “Taste Canada’s Best” theme during the recent holidays.

“It’s important to present Canadian whisky as a lighter, easier-to-drink product, promoting its mixability versus traditional whiskies,” he stated. McCarthy recommends in-store sampling, where legal, of CC and Coke or CC and Ginger Ale.

The brand is currently debuting a major initiative, primarily on-premise, with Canadian Club consumers getting a chance to attempt trick shots while shooting pool. The four-tiered program kicks off in January with more than 275 consumer-involving events at pool-oriented on-premise clubs nationwide. Sampling teams invite potential pool players to enjoy a special CC drink. Consumers then will put their pool skills to the test, win raffle prizes (branded cue balls, 8-balls, T-shirts), learn trick shots with CC educational cards, and sample CC drinks. The program continues with competition among four-person teams in six key markets: IL, MI, PA, MA, IN and WI, where one four-person team from each market will qualify for the third tier.

Teams from each of the six markets will be competing to advance to the final round, where they will be flown to Las Vegas, where famous pool player Jeanette Lee will demonstrate trick shots and take one shot for each of the six competing teams. The culmination of the four-month promotion takes place at the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas, NV. Six winning teams of four players will vie for a $20,000 team prize, as well as the $500,000 opportunity to beat Jeanette Lee and sink the 8 ball for an additional $500,000. McCarthy added that an off-premise sweepstakes promotion is complementing the initiative with the winner being offered a chance to attend the finals in Las Vegas.

Black Velvet is expanding its event marketing by tying into the International Professional Rodeo Association as a corporate sponsor.

Karcz, at Jim Beam, summed up the challenge ahead: “The Canadian category is full of strong brand names with rich heritage. With so much activity in other categories, this is often overlooked. Support at retail, through display and feature activity, can keep the category top of mind with consumers.”

And that seems to be the key point to growing the category: make consumers aware of what Canadian whisky can offer.


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