Given the abundance of the golden seas of grain our sizable country’s landscape offers, it’s no surprise that Canadians put plenty of it to good use for spirits and beer.
Canada exports an immense amount of its boozy wares each year. According to Statistics Canada, nearly $1-billion of alcohol is shipped internationally.
Spirits account for nearly two thirds of that number at $650.5-million, with Canadian whisky being our high-proof crown jewel and accounting for the large majority of the exported value.
Household Canadian labels such as Crown Royal – which was purchased by international liquor giant Diageo in 2000, but is produced exclusively in Gimli, Man. – mostly command this export market and can be found readily around the world.
But in the past few years, smaller-scale craft distilleries are carving a share of this international pie. Alberta’s Eau Claire Distillery, Black Fox Farm and Distillery in Saskatoon and Victoria Distillers are just a few that have found recent success expanding beyond Canada.
Eau Claire entered the U.S. market in 2016 in Florida and now has two of signature spirits (Parlour Gin and Prickly Pear EquineOx) available in New York, California and Illinois.
David Farran, founder and owner of Eau Claire Distillery, explains that interprovincial trade barriers in Canada make it difficult for microdistilleries to expand across the country and because of that, they have looked south of the border with sights set on Europe.
“Canada is one of the most restrictive markets in the world [when trying to sell spirits nationally], so we have looked to international markets as our only growth opportunities,” Mr. Farran said. “We would like to grow in Europe next. Europeans appreciate quality above all else.”
Victoria Distillers, by way of its now-famous Empress 1908 Gin, and Black Fox are already a step ahead and have their products available in a few European countries.
Peter Hunt, president and master distiller at Victoria Distillers, said that only five weeks after launching the Empress 1908 Gin in 2017 – the gin was originally made in honour of the Fairmont Empress’s historical imprint on the B.C. capital – it quickly surpassed all of its other products including the company’s flagship gin. Having taken on a life of its own, the company chose to focus on expanding the brand of Empress specifically.
“It’s really hard for a small independent brand to get a foothold in international markets. There are many layers in each market and every layer has its own negotiations and considerable expenses,” Mr. Hunt said. “It’s also very competitive and largely controlled by large distributors and global brands. As a result, it is really tough to get any attention as a small, independent supplier.”
By the end of this year, Mr. Hunt said the company will have shipped an impressive 140,000 bottles of the Empress 1908 Gin to destinations including New Zealand, the Philippines, Switzerland and more than 30 U.S. states.
John Cote, co-owner of Black Fox, said that once he was able to secure a European entry point for his gins by way of Denmark, his Saskatchewan-made spirits were more easily distributed to other countries in the European Union. His wife and business partner, Barb Cote, just returned from a trade mission in China, where their spirits will be available soon.
But, it’s not just Canadian craft spirits that are going global. So, too, are some of the country's bartenders.
This past summer, a trio of bartenders representing Vancouver’s Botanist Bar (Grant Sceney, Jeff Savage and Max Curzon-Price) made international headlines after clinching the Bols Around the World, World’s Best Bar Team title during the 10th annual competition in Amsterdam.
“We have seen [the Canadian cocktail scene] grow in reputation tremendously over the past decade as Canadians keep performing and placing well in global bartending competitions,” Mr. Sceney said. “It’s kind of hard for them not to notice us any more.”
Mr. Sceney runs the beverage program at the Fairmont Pacific Rim and worked with fellow bartenders Mr. Curzon-Price and Mr. Savage (formerly of Calgary’s Proof). He is also one of only six bartenders globally who helped to create the company’s international cocktail program, “Classics Perfected” when it launched in 2016 and again earlier this year for its “2.0” revamp.
“It’s a pretty incredible feeling to be included in this group of bartenders globally,” Mr. Sceney said. “This time around, the six of us [came together and collaborated] at Dead Rabbit in New York with cocktail ideas and I’m happy to say three of my recipes, ‘Chai Tai’, ‘Orange Trip’ and ‘Madame Fleur’ made the final menu.”
Whether you’re in Barcelona at the Fairmont Rey Juan Carlos I, his home bar in Vancouver, or the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton, you can get a taste of what Mr. Sceney has to offer.
Best to check if there’s some Black Fox gin behind the bar, too, while you’re at it.
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