Forty Creek Distillery Ltd. is hoping its product line will reach a global audience, as Italian beverage giant Gruppo Campari agreed to purchase the Grimsby, Ont.-company for $185.6 million.
John Hall, founder of Forty Creek, one of Canada’s largest independent distillers, says he spent seven months searching for a company with the resources to take Forty Creek global, but whose interests and business models aligned with his own.
Hall will remain on as chairman and whisky maker at the company, according to the deal announced Wednesday. “I like being innovative, I like being creative, this is the canvas I love painting on,” Hall said. “I had to go out into the marketplace and do presentations to distributors . . . now I’ll be able to spend more time. I can do what I like doing best, which is whisky making.”
Whisky making, like wine making – which is how Hall started – is creative, he said.
“To achieve the complexity, you have to have the grains that you use, the stills that you use and the various types of barrels that you use and they all combine to produce various case nuances and handcrafted quality,” Hall said. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Gruppo Campari says the deal includes Forty Creek’s stocks, distillery facilities and the hospitality centre in Grimsby. Founded in 1992, Forty Creek produces premium whisky under its brand, and also vodka, brandy, rum and other liqueurs. Gruppo Campari, best known for its bitters, says the all-cash deal is expected to close June 2.
Hall says the handover will be bittersweet.
“There’s always change,” he said. “The thing is that even though this is the part that I’ve created and I’ve obviously been involved in this product 24-7 … if I want to really establish a strong product, I need a partner to assist me.”
“Through this acquisition we enter the very large and appealing Canadian whisky category . . . driving a richer product mix and further leveraging the revival of brown spirits,” said Jean Jacques Dubau, managing director of North America for Campari.
The news was unexpected for some Ontario craft distilleries.
“It came as a surprise that he sold,” said Barry Stein, co-owner of Still Waters Distilleryin Concord, Ont. “But it’s basically par for the course. Pretty much every independent, larger Canadian distillery that was left has been purchased by one of the multinationals.”
It’ll be up to a slew of small Canadian craft distilleries to “wave the Canadian flag,” Stein said. “We have a very proud distilling heritage in this country that goes back a long, long time.”
Since the whisky itself will remain Canadian, Hall said he isn’t concerned about Forty Creek being owned by a foreign company.
Lew Bryson, managing editor of Malt Advocate, said the company is in good hands. “They’re not being bought by … large, anonymous trusts that might try to fiddle with them,” Bryson said, highlighting Gruppo Campari’s purchase several years ago of American whisky company Wild Turkey.
“They’re very, very good stewards,” he said. “They really don’t want to come in and change these brands too much.”
In Canada, Gruppo Campari has said Forty Creek’s business model will remain unchanged, but with added supports.
“When you think about the number of Canadian brands that are actually global brands, there’s not a lot of them,” Hall said, “so this will be very, very satisfying for me.”