Niagara distillers ready to pour into growing spirits market

Mar 24, 2019 | Uncategorized

Spirits are enjoying a resurgence in Canada, and Niagara’s alcohol industry is moving to capitalize.

The numbers are in on Canada’s consumption of spirituous beverages, with statistics released by Spirits Canada showing sales volumes ticking up by 3.8 per cent in the year behind as a Canadians move from wine and beer to cocktails and liqueurs.

It’s the largest increase in spirit sales since 2006, and Niagara distilleries, and long-standing entities in the wine industry, are moving to fill the demand.

“For many, many years spirits were not the first choice,” said Spirits Canada chief executive officer and president Jan Westcott, who counts the numbers as a win for the industry the trade organization represents.

“Spirits are back in the mix,” he said.

The growing profile of spirits — in cocktails, straight up or in pre-mixed beverages — is in part due to changing tastes of millennials, according to Westcott, who pointed to a growing demand for creative and unique products such as Dillon’s Rose Gin, distilled in Beamsville.

Millennials, Wescott said, are enjoying cocktails while eschewing the typical limitations of time and place previous generations did.

“Millennials are into spirits in a way earlier generations never were,” said Westcott, who noted even as individuals are drinking less, they are leaning toward higher-end products represented in spirits.

The desire for new cocktail creations are born in the numbers. Vodka topped spirits sales in Canada, representing 28.1 per cent of spirit sales ahead of Canada’s national spirit, whisky, at 27.9 per cent. Less predominant spirit categories like gin and tequila are enjoying with 11.2 per cent and 10.6 per cent volume increases respectively.

Wayne Gretzky Estates mixologist Zac Kvas was quick to point to the diversified palates of millennials as a driver of the spirits resurgence, especially in clear liquors that can be mixed creatively with a focus on low-calorie, low-alcohol beverages.

“This is the new kid on the block everyone wants to get with,” said Kvas, noting new distilleries are springing up in the region traditionally dominated by the wine industry. He pointed to Dillon’s and the newly-established Limited Distillery in Niagara-on-the-Lake alongside more established brands like Grimsby’s Forty Creek.

Polonee Distillery in St. Catharines is another new Niagara brand in the spirit game with several products, including Kannuk Vodka, boasting a unique flavour profile derived from soft wheat, corn, sweet potato and wild rice. The distillery, and its vodka brand, has enjoyed growth since opening several years ago.

“We kind of fall into the startup category,” said founder and distiller Adam Szymków, who started his effort in the spirit game with a focus on creating a unique and different product.

“People aren’t just looking for rubbing alcohol types of vodka,” said Szymków, adding, “they’re actually looking for a little more character.”

He was quick to note he couldn’t have predicted the resurgence of clear alcohols such as vodka and gin with a new, health-conscious consumer, even if the trend is favourable for his business.

“The small guys are really making a contribution in terms of innovation,” said Westcott.

Even long-standing wine makers are breaking into the spirits game. Gretzky Estates, with its product line of whiskies and crème liqueur alongside wines, is a brand under the Andrew Peller Ltd. banner.

The introduction of a spirit brand alongside wine offerings has been a boon according to estate manager Rebecca Hill, noting the Peller brand had long eyed a whisky line before teaming up with Gretzky. In the end she said, the spirit line allows for a more complex customer experience appealing to a more diverse demographic.

“What keeps people coming back here is the quality of the product, and the whisky plays a huge role in that,” said Hill, adding, “having a portfolio beyond the wines allows the customers to spend the whole afternoon with us.”

With the success of spirit lines under the Peller umbrella, Hill said expansion is likely.

“In the (Niagara) peninsula there’s a number of people doing well,” said Westcott, who pointed out even as smaller, craft distillers capitalize on changing trends the big names of Canadian spirits are still enjoying growth, with Canadian whisky representing 66.5 per cent of the total whisky market share.

by Steve Henschel , Niagara-on-the-Lake Advance

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