Drink consultants and liquor-board buyers have been gazing into the future for months now.They expect big changes on tap for 2011: It'll be a year of bold flavours, big value and discovery.
"Consumers are beginning to forage" for things they haven't yet tried, says Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based firm that advises the food and beverage industries. That includes premium beers from microbreweries, wines from less-travelled regions and spirits other than ubiquitous vodka. "I think that trend is really picking up pace right now."
I prevailed on Mr. Pirko and other industry experts for their predictions.
A brown tide. Spirits such as Cognac, rum and, most of all, whisky will slake our growing thirst for full-flavoured booze, giving neutral-tasting vodka - though still a growing category at the premium end - a run for its money. "Whisky - Irish, American and [Scottish]single malt - are what people are really looking at," says Shari Mogk-Edwards, vice-president of merchandising at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. It's an exciting development that's inspiring her to shop for more specialized and rare offerings.
Guerrilla shoppers. Big spenders, stung by the recession, will flash their wallets again. But they'll splurge more discriminately, demanding value at every price point. It will not be a good year for $80 Napa trophy cabernets that fail to deliver a sublime drinking experience.
Baskin Robbins at the bar. Flavoured spirits will be all the rage, from vodkas based on root beer to spiced rums to bourbons laced with black cherry (as in the hot new Red Stag from Jim Beam)."For a long time, [the]industry was catering to baby boomers," Ms. Mogk-Edwards says. "Now we've got the millennials coming up and they're very different. … This group was raised on Doritos and high-flavoured products, so it's no surprise that what's driving growth is flavours." For my money, I'd take a bag of Doritos over a shot of root-beer vodka, but Red Stag, which may be causing Jim Beam to roll in his grave, is better than it might sound.
A crack in interprovincial walls? Late last year, Ron Cannan, member of Parliament for Kelowna-Lake Country in British Columbia, tabled a motion to amend a 1928 federal law restricting the sale of wine across provincial lines, a vestige of the post-Prohibition era. Though a motion is not binding and falls short of a legal bill that would change the statute, it's a good bet there will be spirited political debate on the issue. "I've never seen this kind of attention paid to this issue before at the federal level," says Mark Hicken, a Vancouver lawyer who provides advice to the wine industry and supports a change. "I can't see any politician being opposed to it." I'll second that motion. The Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act is a national shame on par with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Locapours rising. You've heard of locavores, virtuous foodies obsessed with the 100-mile diet? A similar movement is gaining traction in the drinks world as Canadians turn increasingly to quality domestic wines and craft beers. "The biggest-growing category that we have is VQA," says Ms. Mogk-Edwards, referring to premium products that contain 100-per-cent domestic juice as guaranteed by the Vintners Quality Alliance seal. Eye-catching new label designs, such as Henry of Pelham's Sibling Rivalry line from Niagara, are helping to drive the trend.
Europe crosses the Rockies. British Columbians, who have been intensely loyal to their local wines, will show growing interest in the Continent, says Barbara Philip, European portfolio manager for the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch. Rhône, Alsace and especially Burgundy have begun tempting consumers who previously looked only to Bordeaux for their French fix. Spain, too, is starting to post gains in the province.
Wine with extra fruit. Sangria, the wine-based punch stretched with soda and laced with citrus and other orchard bounty, will be a big buzzword for 2011. "People are increasingly interested in things Spanish," says Michael Whiteman, president of Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman, international restaurant consultants based in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Blame the tapas craze. Also, sangria is a low-alcohol beverage and you don't get sloshed so rapidly." Unfortunately, most restaurants make a pathetic sangria. Try mixing a pitcher at home - with dry club soda instead of 7-Up and a good shot of brandy for added kick.
A better pink cocktail. The Negroni, a classic Italian drink based on Campari, gin and vermouth, is poised for popularity, Mr. Whiteman says. It's a glorious drink. Moderately sweet and deliciously bitter, it goes down easier than a martini and oozes more sophistication than a cloying cosmopolitan. And it pairs beautifully with a home screening of Fellini's La Dolce Vita.
Canadian wine goes au natural. B.C. wineries will devote more land to organic and sustainable farming, and introduce lighter glass bottles, which carry a smaller carbon footprint, says Lindsay Anders, communications manager with the B.C. Wine Institute. The same trend is taking hold in Niagara. Those pretentiously heavy bottles designed to telegraph quality are becoming an extinct species - finally.
The other cabernet. Look for cabernet franc, a lighter and arguably more food-friendly counterpart to popular cabernet sauvignon, to gain new respect in British Columbia, thanks to the excellent pioneering efforts of such wineries as Pentâge, Burrowing Owl and Tinhorn Creek. Cabernet franc gets my vote as the next great signature variety of the Okanagan, joining merlot and pinot gris.
White is the new red. "People are looking for more white wines than they have in the past," Ms. Mogk-Edwards says. A warm summer in many parts of Canada last year prompted consumers to discover a world beyond chardonnay and pinot grigio. Look for such offbeat varieties as gruner veltliner from Austria, chenin blanc from South Africa and torrontes from Argentina to capture more attention. It underscores the maxim that the more you drink wine, the more you drink white. This may be the year Canada reaches full maturity as a wine-besotted country.