Canadian whisky is the quiet giant of the distilled spirits market. With sales of over 15.5 million cases for 1997, Canadian whisky is the second-largest distilled spirit category after vodka.

“Canadians probably account for 65% to 70% of my brown goods sales,” said Hal Gershman, owner of the two-store Happy Harry’s retail operation headquartered in Grand Forks, ND. This is not that surprising, for Happy Harry’s is located not far from the Canadian border. What is surprising is that a few thousand miles away, Jess Bailes, vice president of ABC Fine Wines & Spirits, finds that Canadian whiskies are also popular in his Florida retail chain. “Among whiskies, Canadians have some of the healthiest sales for us,” he reported.0198ns2

Suppliers admit, however, that the category has seen better days. According to the 1997 Adams Liquor Handbook, the last time the Canadian whisky category as a whole showed growth was in 1992. And the latest estimates for 1997 show that sales of Canadian whisky have again suffered a decline of approximately 4%.

“It is one of those questions: is the glass half empty or half full?” said Richard Collins, category director for North American whiskies at Seagram Americas, which markets two of the top Canadian whiskies, Crown Royal and Seagram’s V.O. Collins pointed out that while Seagram’s V.O. has seen its volume decline in recent years, it still represents annual sales of over 1.5 million 9-liter cases and is the 16th largest-selling distilled spirit brand overall. “It is still a massive brand in terms of absolute volume and profit,” said Collins, who observed that for Seagram, a company whose stock market symbol is “V.O.,” Seagram’s V.O. is still a flagship brand.

And if Canadian whisky is a giant who’s been sleeping for a while, it does show signs of waking. At the premium end of the market, Crown Royal, nationally the second largest Canadian whisky brand after Canadian Mist, saw its sales increase slightly in 1997, according to Adams Media research estimates, to just under 2 million 9-liter cases. In addition, two price/value brands, Canadian LTD from Barton Brands and Canadian Rich & Rare from Hiram Walker, have also experienced rising sales in 1997, up 4.4% and 10.4% respectively.


Indeed, many suppliers say they are committed to waking the sleeping giant. “We always like to say that there are no mature distilled spirit brands, only mature ways of marketing them,” said Seagram’s Collins. In November, V.O. launched a new marketing strategy, which started with a direct-mail campaign targeted at over 1.3 million V.O. consumers.

0198ns3And Canadian Mist, the top-selling brand in the category, has increased its advertising budget by over 50%, to approximately $3 million per year. “We mean to take more of a leadership role,” explained Bob Hausladen, vice president and marketing director for Canadian Mist at Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide. “Over the next five years, our intent is to build consumer interest in Canadian Mist and, frankly, in Canadian whiskies in general.”

Suppliers point out that Canadian whiskies have a lot to offer consumers. One characteristic is taste. “There is a broad sense [among consumers] that Scotch is a difficult taste to acquire,” explained Seagram’s Collins. “One of Canadian whisky’s great strengths is that its defining characteristic is its smoothness of taste.”

Leading Brands of Canadian Whisky
(Thousands of 9-Liter Cases)
Brands Type Supplier 1996 1997e % Change
Canadian Mist USB Brown-Forman Beverages 2,890 2,680 -7.3%
Crown Royal FB Seagram Americas 1,965 1,980 0.8%
Black Velvet USB IDV North America 1,834 1,830 -0.2%
Seagram’s V.O. FB Seagram Americas 1,625 1,530 -5.8%
Canadian Club FB Hiram Walker & Sons 1,550 1,450 -6.5%
Windsor Supreme USB Jim Beam Brands 1,535 1,410 -8.1%
Lord Calvert USB Jim Beam Brands 828 760 -8.2%
Canadian LTD USB Barton Inc. 642 670 4.4%
Canadian Rich & Rare USB Hiram Walker & Sons 335 370 10.4%
Canadian Hunter USB Seagram Americas 375 350 -6.7%
Total Leading Brands 13,579 13,030 -4.0%
Others 2,723 2,580 -5.3%
Total Canadian 16,302 15,610 -4.2%
(e) 1997 estimates.
Source: Adams Liquor Handbook 1997 and Adams Research Database.

Jack Kavanagh, brand manager at Barton Brands, agreed. “Canadian whisky’s lighter taste goes hand in hand with consumer preferences.” This lightness has traditionally positioned Canadian whisky as a highly mixable spirit, and an important ingredient in several classic cocktails, among them the Manhattan, the Whisky Sour and the Highball.


“There’s the halo effect — distilled spirits in general are no longer seeing the declines they were in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Dave Waluk, group marketing director for Hiram Walker & Sons, which markets Canadian Club. “There’s also been a return to the more traditional, less trendy products, and Canadian whisky fits right in.”

In addition, Waluk believes that the interest in boutique whiskies — like high-end bourbons and single malt Scotch — can have a spillover effect on the whisky market in general. “Consumers may drink the heavier boutique whiskies on special occasions. And once they develop a palate for whisky, they could very well choose a lighter whisky for other times, rather than switch to vodka or some other white spirit.”

Many suppliers also believe that Canadian whiskies will be able to appeal to consumers based on their history and heritage. Said Seagram’s Collins, “Canadian whiskies have a significant heritage — for example, Seagram was operating as a distillery in 1857. We have a good opportunity to enter into that type of dialogue with consumers. We have been quiet but we do have credentials.”

Other marketers agree. “Canadian whiskies have been around for so long,” said Hiram Walker’s Waluk, “but it’s been a long time since suppliers have talked about them.”

Canadian Club is introducing a new label to emphasize its credentials. Among the attributes to be highlighted: that Canadian Club is aged for six years and that it is aged differently than most Canadian whiskies, in a process Hiram Walker calls “barrel blending.” Most Canadian whiskies age their component whiskies separately and then blend those components together just before bottling, Waluk explained. On the other hand, Canadian Club is blended first and then aged. “This allows the flavors to marry together,” he said.

Brown-Forman has decided to invest its new $3 million marketing budget for Canadian Mist, the category leader, into a wide range of projects. These include its Internet site (, which has seen its use by potential consumers increase five-fold every month. The company is also launching its first consumer media advertising program for its 1885 Special Reserve superpremium line extension and is expanding its annual Comedy Challenge, a national competition for stand-up comics. Canadian Mist will also be supported by outdoor advertising in 26 states in 1998 and is looking to increase its visibility through magazine advertising.

Meanwhile, Black Velvet, nationally the number-three Canadian whisky brand in the U.S., will be introducing a limited-edition Black Velvet Lady bottle in March. According to Wendy La Via, Black Velvet’s brand manager at IDV North America, the brand has outperformed the Canadian whisky category as a whole, with its latest sales figures showing the brand just about flat.

Things are also looking up among some price/value brands. For example, Barton Brands, which markets Canadian LTD, Northern Light and Canadian Host, reported that its whole Canadian whisky portfolio is up by 5% this year. The company’s largest nationally distributed brand, Canadian LTD, “is sky-rocketing,” according to brand manager Kavanagh.

Barton has a two-part strategy for its Canadian whiskies. One area of focus is to improve the availability of different sizes at retail. “We’re trying to serve the needs and wants of various consumer segments,” explained Kavanagh. “There’s a market for each size.”

The company is also running rebate programs on its brands, generally a $2 to $3 rebate offer on the 1.75 size in markets where legal. Kavanagh pointed out that this strategy has advantages over simply dropping the price. “The rebate goes directly to consumers. It is a reward for existing consumers as well as an incentive to buy the brand,” he said. “But when you cut prices, you’re training consumers that that’s the value of the brand.”

Windsor Supreme and Lord Calvert, two Canadian whiskies from Jim Beam Brands, are often the top distilled spirit brands of any type in their strongest regional markets. And, said Alan Cohen, vice president of brand management, “this presence has been supported by excellent regional promotional programs, targeted advertising executions and increased on- and off-premise p-o-s support.”

One of the most successful promotions the brands ran last year was called the “Windsor Breakaway.” Held in five of Windsor’s top markets, the program included events held at professional hockey games during the intermission, with four consumers in each city getting to go one-on-one with former NHL goalie and Olympic gold medalist Jim Craig.

At the top end of the market, Crown Royal continues its outstanding performance. “Crown Royal is a phenomenon. It’s the one Canadian, in my opinion, that is popular with people of all ages and that is popular both on- and off-premise,” said retailer Bailes of ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, where the brand is the top-selling Canadian whisky. “Everyone [in Canadian whiskies] aspires to be like Crown Royal, the way other vodkas aspire to be like Absolut.”

Neil Gallo, category director for Crown Royal at Seagram Americas, verified his brand’s strong performance. “In many areas it has exceeded our expectations,” he said. The brand’s marketing strategy is to continue to fine-tune its ongoing efforts, such as its sponsorship of rodeos, horse races and show-jumping events.

In a joint venture with its affiliate, MCA/Decca Nashville, a country music company, Crown Royal has also launched its latest concert series. This year, “Crown Royal Untamed & True” is a seven-month, 44 city tour, running through May, and featuring the country music stars Mark Chesnutt, David Lee Murphy and Gary Allan.

Generally speaking, the prospects for Canadian whisky are bright, suppliers believe. “It’s light, relatively easy-to-drink and can be used in a fantastic range of mixed drinks,” said Seagram’s Collins. “But suppliers must lead the way.” And with their latest initiatives, that’s just what they’re trying to do.

Cheryl Ursin is a regular contributor to Beverage & Food Dynamics and Cheers magazines. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times and other publications.


Return to Top

6801CANBSeeking to take advantage of the trend toward more premium products, many Canadian whisky suppliers are offering high-end brands. Some do it by offering a more upscale extension of their existing brand, such as Crown Royal Special Reserve, which sells for approximately $36 to $40 compared to the suggested retail price of $17 for Crown Royal itself. The 12-year-old Canadian Club Classic retails for about $18 compared to Canadian Club’s average $12 retail price, and Canadian Mist 1885 Special Reserve costs between $16 and $20 retail compared to $7 to $10 for Canadian Mist. Jim Beam, on the other hand, has a separate high-end brand, Tangle Ridge, which retails for approximately $19.

Though these brands are, perhaps by their very nature, small in volume, Brown-Forman’s Canadian Mist marketing director, Bob Hausladen, pointed out that they can have an impact beyond their size. “Our Special Reserve adds excitement to the category,” he said. Indeed, the brand is positioning itself in print ads as a high-quality, mixable spirit by focusing on its use in a classic cocktail, the Manhattan. “It’s a drink that we think showcases what this brand is all about,” concluded Hausladen.

(Brown-Forman Beverage Worldwide)
This spring there will be a consumer offer for a TI Bubble II driver from Taylor Made, a golf-equipment company.

(Seagram Americas)
Off-premise materials tie into the national “Untamed & True” country music tour through May. Regional off-premise materials correspond to the brand’s sponsorships of rodeos, show-jumping competitions and other equestrian events.

(Hiram Walker & Sons)
From February through April, merchandising materials will support the introduction of the brand’s new label. Materials focusing on consumer education are planned for later in the year.

(Seagram Americas)
A direct-mail campaign has been targeted to more than 1.3 million V.O. consumers.

(Barton Brands)
Consumers can get for a guidebook to casinos in the United States or a $3 rebate on the 1.75 size, in markets where legal.

(IDV North America)
The first Black Velvet Lady limited-edition bottle rolls out in March supported by in-store p-o-s materials.

(Jim Beam Brands)
Regional promotional and advertising programs include p-o-s materials to back them up.

(Barton Brands)
Consumers can get a guidebook to casinos in the United States or a $3 rebate on the 1.75 size, in markets where legal.

(Jim Beam Brands)
Regional promotional and advertising programs include p-o-s materials to back them up.

Please Note: Some pictures or diagrams
are only available through the printed media.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here