Canadian whisky may have surged nearly a century ago when it became the choice beverage during Prohibition, but it’s far from being a forgotten spirit.
Like any fashion trend, from 1980s neon to skinny jeans, what goes around comes around – and the same rule applies to Canadian whiskies. The category is seeing a revitalization of sorts as younger consumer interest drifts toward the “what’s old is new again” mentality.
“Not only are people experimenting with new and different flavors, textures and ingredients, they are bringing back long-forgotten cocktails,” says Joanne Vinci, marketing manager of Black Velvet Whisky at Constellation Brands. “Canadian whisky was the Prohibition era spirit. So it fits into this trend quite naturally.”
Numbers have yet to prove this resurgence – Canadian whisky sales were slightly down nationwide, by 0.5%, according to Beverage Information Group data. But Canadian whiskies are still flourishing. With case sales at 15,325,000 million in 2011, they garner 33.1% of the total whiskey sales and 59.8% of imported whiskey sales, as noted in the 2012 Beverage Information Group Liquor Handbook. Regardless of what the numbers say, brand managers will assert that Canadian whisky is a category on the upswing as younger consumers discover it and experiment with it. “Canadian whisky is innovating to meet the needs of whisky consumers by introducing flavored expressions, high-proof variants, and premium/superpremium products,” Vinci says.
The premise is that these innovations, like the flavored whiskies following the popularity of other flavored spirits, will attract a younger audience. “A growing female interest in whisky is also a very promising trend for the category and a great opportunity for blended Canadian producers like us,” says Yvonne Briese, vp of marketing, Diageo North American Whisky. Coupled with the heritage and history of Canadian whiskies, they should help fuel category growth.
Made from Maple
The maple leaf is synonymous with Canada-it’s the national symbol, it’s centered on the country’s flag, it’s the name of a National Hockey League team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s a part of Canada. So it’s only natural that maple would be incorporated into a Canadian spirit.
Crown Royal has established itself as the leading Canadian whisky in the U.S., and it continues to innovate and introduce new blends. “Crown Royal is always looking for opportunities to create innovative new whisky offerings,” Briese says. In November, Crown Royal introduced Crown Royal Maple Finished, its first venture into the fast-growing flavored whisky category.
“Extensive consumer research identified a need within the Canadian whisky category for a high-quality flavored whisky from a trusted, well-known and well-respected brand,” she says. “Maple was the perfect place for us to enter the category.” To create the product, the legendary taste of Crown Royal is blended with natural maple flavor and finished with a run through maple tasted oak. Beyond the signature bottle Crown Royal is recognized for, the 80 proof Maple Finished has packaging that reflects the amber- and topaz-hued end product: copper and auburn colors are incorporated into the maple-leaf emblazoned label, and the bottle is paired with a gold-accented, brown version of the iconic bag. The 750 ml bottle has as suggested retail price of $24.99 and is available nationwide.
Additionally, this past June, Crown Royal released Crown Royal XR, its second variant to its Extra Rare Whisky Series, which features blends made from a batch of rare whiskies. Made from the LaSalle Distillery’s remaining whiskies, the spirit’s taste blends dried fruits and honey with Canadian rye. The last time Crown Royal released an extra rare whisky was the 2006 inaugural installment crafted from Waterloo Distillery whiskies. With six years between releases, a limited run, and signature packaging, XR carries a suggested retail price of $129.99 for the 750 ml bottle.
Still, Crown Royal Maple Finished is not Diageo’s only flavored Canadian whisky. The quieter cousin to Crown Royal, Seagram’s 7, already had Dark Honey and Stone Cherry flavors in the market.
And Crown Royal doesn’t have the market’s only maple-flavored Canadian whisky. Imported by Van Gogh Imports, TAP 357 is a small-batch maple-flavored Canadian rye whisky that became available in February 2012. The brand’s Canadian heritage and artisanal roots are showcased in the label’s hand-drawn illustration. The 750 ml bottle, a cork-finished bottle produced by Bruni Glass Company, retails for $29.99.
Meanwhile, Brown-Forman’s high-end Collingwood, the hand-crafted, toasted maplewood mellowed Canadian whisky was released in 2011. “Collingwood has struck a chord with consumers for the smooth taste that comes from that secondary Maplewood mellowing process,” says Pedro Berrueco, senior brand manager of Canadian Whiskies at Brown-Forman.
As a result, the brand has expanded into eight states, with more to follow as interest grows. Berrueco believes that the premium label isn’t what’s fueling the growth. “They are drawn to finding new flavors-which is often found in the small batch, hand-crafted offerings, where flavors are more complex through a variety of grain bills, longer maturation and innovative finishes such as Sherry, port or Maplewood,” he explains. Of course, Brown-Forman’s high-volume Canadian, Canadian Mist, also debuted a line extension two years ago, with Canadian Mist Black Diamond, as a higher-end alternative to the popular original brand.
“Flavored whisky continues to be a growing category in the spirits market, and our experience and success with Canadian whiskies makes this a natural endeavor for us,” says Ronald Dodge, Hood River Distillers president and CEO. Take Hood River Distillers’ SinFire Cinnamon Whisky, which became available nationwide in February 2012. The rich whisky notes are balanced by the sweet and spicy cinnamon flavor. The label targets men and women who are 21 to 40 years old, and each 750 ml bottle retails for $16.99. “With the development of SinFire Cinnamon Whisky, our goal is to offer our distributors and off-premise partners a great-tasting, flavored whisky, at a great value.”
While 2011 saw the re-release of the spiced whisky Revel Stoke, 2012 saw the introduction of Spicebox Canadian Spiced Rye Whisky. Here’s an 80 proof whisky containing notes of rye, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper. The vintage label pays tribute to Canadian whisky’s history, and each 750 ml bottle retails for $19.99.
Like Spicebox, Canadian Club is another brand that’s going back to its roots. With the introduction of its Dock No. 57 label, C.C. remembers the bygone Prohibition era. The name was inspired by the dock where Canadian Club’s export manager Bill “The Real” McCoy shipped Canadian whisky to the U.S. during the dry years. First available in Canada in both spiced and blackberry infused versions, the blackberry-flavored Dock No. 57 came to the U.S. in November 2012. “We were the first major Canadian Brand to launch a flavor with Canadian Club Dock 57 Blackberry Whisky, which is off to a strong start,” says Bob Gorman, Director of World Whiskies for Beam. With its 40% ABV, it’s aimed at helping younger consumers graduate to whisky, and has a suggested retail price of $15.99.
Constellation Brands’ Black Velvet label became a trio in September 2012 when it decided to explore the flavored whisky trend. The 70 proof Toasted Caramel variant joined Black Velvet and Black Velvet Reserve, offering a flavor profile that accentuates the brand’s caramel flavor with toasted and sweet notes. The packaging reflects that of the original Black Velvet-the bottle shape is identical-and the 750 ml bottles are targeted at $3 above Black Velvet at $12.49. “Black Velvet Toasted Caramel is introducing a whole new audience to Black Velvet, and giving the entire brand a boost,” says Vinci.
Currently only available in 50 ml and 750 ml bottles, additional sizes of Black Velvet are being considered for 2013. Vinci also says the brand hopes to roll out a second flavor innovation during the second half of 2013.
“Although the Canadian whisky category as a whole remains flat, the premium and super premium category has really taken off,” says Kevin Richards, Canadian whisky brand manager at Sazerac. Their answers to this market segment are Caribou Crossing and Royal Canadian Small Batch. “They’re much more premium expressions of Canadian,” he explains. “They showcase the skill we have with our master whisky maker.”
While the numbers show that Canadian whiskies haven’t seen huge gains or losses in the last year, Sazerac is seeing success with its labels, especially those among the top 10 Canadian whiskies in the U.S., Rich & Rare, Canadian LTD and Canadian Hunter. These brands had their packaging updated in the last year or so-“so that these brands stand out better on the shelf,” Richards says-that paid dividends. They all saw significant increases in case sales, which, in turn, helped keep the category as a whole from faltering.
In late 2011, Sazerac was just rolling out with a line extension of its popular Rich & Rare whisky, Rich & Rare Reserve. By late 2012, the premium product was available in roughly 25 states. “We’re being ‘steady as she goes’ with where we launch it and how we launch it and when we launch it that it’s primed for success,” he says.
All in the Package
While Crown Royal has its signature velvet bag with its colors changing depending on the product (royal blue for Extra Rare, brown for Maple Finished), Pendleton Whisky, out of the Pacific Northwest, pays homage to its cowboy culture. It sponsors the Pendleton Round-Up, a prestigious rodeo, and each bottle highlights the rodeo’s bucking bronco symbol and Let’er Buck slogan. The brand’s bottle sizes are named after horses from The Colt, at 50ml, to The Stallion, at 1.75 liters. In 2012, Pendleton went one step further, introducing packaging that included a custom 2012 belt buckle. The collectible, limited edition belt buckle was designed by Montana Silversmith and available on select 1.75 liter bottles.
Collingwood’s packaging also gets it noticed-it’s unique shape stands out on the shelf. “When you look at the Collingwood package design, it stands apart from average whisky brands, and presents a very contemporary look that appeal to a younger more modern consumer,” Berrueco explains. It might also help that Collingwood bottles can be personalized with self-adhesive labels available through Collingwoodwhisky.com.
Regardless of the occasion, Sazerac’s single barrel Canadian whisky, Caribou Crossing, is available for purchase in an elegant gift box. Each 750 ml bottle, retailing for $49.99, is placed in a royal blue bag, then nestled into the gift box, ready to go straight from store to recipient.
But perhaps the biggest news of the year comes from Canadian Club. “Canadian Club is in the first year of a complete brand restage with new packaging, innovation, and a new ad campaign,” Gorman says. “We have new packaging on all of the marquees that have premiumized our look and feel and do the liquid inside justice.”
The Digital Age
It’s the 21st century and no longer is it enough to support product launches with advertising, public relations and point-of-sale materials. New releases also have strong digital strategies.
Crown Royal connects with its audience through Facebook and Twitter. “We’re primarily engaged with our consumers through our Society of the Crown website and fanbase as well as Facebook, which currently has over 1.1 million ‘likes,'” Briese says. The brand also encourages engagement through Facebook applications like “Create Your Own Bag” where consumers can personalize a Crown Royal bag with a custom message.
Brown-Forman uses social media to spread its “Lighten Up” message, the Canadian Mist campaign developed to communicate the brand’s benefits and attributes, especially taste. “By design [it] educates the consumers on the benefits Canadian Mist offers with a light clean whisky taste,” Berrueco says.
Before 2012 ended, Beam Inc. announced a new digital media campaign for Canadian Club called “Join the Club.” The campaign includes a character spokesman for the brand called the “Canadian Club chairman,” and video segments on Facebook and other digital formats that talk brand history and “Whisky Whisdoms,” which are aimed to attract men to the category. The campaign will run on digital formats from January through July, and then it will continue on Facebook and at retail until the end of 2013. “On both Facebook and Twitter, we can interact with our consumers not only sharing what we know about our great whiskies but learning great new recipes from our consumers on new ways to enjoy our fantastic liquids,” Gorman says.
Black Velvet turns to social media to interact with its audience. “We are using social media to engage with our core consumers by providing a forum for fans to connect with each other and express a mutual admiration for an iconic brand,” Vinci says. “I wouldn’t say it is a way to attract new consumers; rather it is a way for Black Velvet fans to connect with each other and celebrate the brand.”
Only in Canada
Canadian whiskies have a rich heritage as American imports, but several of the best products can’t be found in large quantities without traveling across the border.
Forty Creek Distillery. This distillery’s Barrel Select and Double Barrel are more readily available in the U.S. But the limited-release Port Wood Reserve and the Copper Pot Reserve, the flavor-amplified new release that won a 2012 Wizards of Whisky silver medal, are harder to come by. The Port Wood Reserve could be found in small quantities until the supply ran out-only 6,600 bottles of the sixth special release were available-and Copper Pot is unique to the province of Ontario.
Highwood Distillers. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede, this distillery released a one-time batch, 6,000 bottles, of the Highwood 25-Year-Old Calgary Stampede whisky. But its release was limited to Alberta.
Alberta Distillers Limited. Labeled by the Vancouver Sun as Canada’s most underrated producer, this distillery recently introduced the small-batch Dark Horse, a pot-distilled 91 percent rye whisky with flavors of vanilla, smoke, spices and dried fruits. However, Alberta Distillers produced the new-in-2011 Masterson’s Rye, which is exclusive to 35 Maple Street out of Sonoma, Calif.
Still Waters Distillery. In April, Ontario’s first grain-to-glass craft distillery released their exclusive LCBO Vintages product. Their Special 1+11 Blend combines four- to six-year-old whiskies sourced from other producers with up to 10% from their production.
Canadian Club. Beam Global is trying a new Canadian Club release in Canada first: ready-to-drink cans. C.C. Mixed & Ready, available in mixes of Ginger Ale and Cola, is expected to serve as an alternate to beer and capture consumer interest especially among those new to the whisky world.
Gibson’s Finest. Owned by William Grant & Sons and produced in Ontario, this brand and its iterations-Sterling, 12 Year Old and Rare-are readily available in Canada but are not exported state side. But plans may be in the works to bring at least one extension to the U.S.
Wiser’s. This Corby Distillers Limited whisky introduced a spiced vanilla variety in 2012.