How Canadian is Your Canadian Whisky?

It turns out that the bottle of “Canadian Whisky” you’ve got on the shelf of your bar isn’t really all that Canadian after all.

This weekend I visited Still Waters Distillery in Concord, Ontario, in order to do a little profile of their business for blogTO. In addition to learning a thing or two about how vodka and whisky are made (not to mention trying a few samples), I also learned a little bit about the whisky business here in Canada.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, it’s a bit of a tough go.

Still Waters, it turns out, is virtually the only micro-distillery operating in Ontario; and really, there are only a handful of micro or craft distillers in the whole country. Much like the handful of Ontario craft brewers I’ve come to know in my time writing about beer, Barry Bernstein and Barry Stein, the co-founders of Still Waters, face an uphill battle when it comes to trying to get their products out to the people who drink them. Indeed, given that the craft beer community is so collaborative and supportive, Still Waters arguably faces an even tougher battle given that they’re essentially the only little guys out there right now, so they’re trying to do it on their own. As with Ontario brewers, the Barrys and all other distillers can sell their products at the LCBO or out of a retail space on-site at their distillery, but approval for either of these outlets is wrought with bureaucracy—there are a multitude of legal requirements for getting your products approved by the LCBO and a slew of both provincial and federal requirements for having a retail space approved—so getting the privilege to sell your product is a process that takes considerable patience.

This is to say nothing of the fact that before you can even get permission to make booze and then sell it, you actually have to build a distillery first.

Furthermore, unlike Ontario’s craft brewers (or wineries), distillers aren’t allowed to approach and sell to vendors directly. That is, whereas bars and restaurants can buy beer from The Beer Store or brewers and can buy wine from Ontario wineries, if they want to buy spirits, they have to come through the LCBO. What that means for the little guys like Still Waters is they aren’t free to market their products directly to local businesses that might want to support them, they’re required to do business, like it or not, with the LCBO.

(This is not to say that the people who operate the LCBO are inherently bad people. Every person I’ve spoken to about the staff involved at each level of the process notes that the LCBO’s staff has been helpful and perfectly pleasent; however, time and time again it seems that small businesses run up against barriers and the only explanation for them is that “those are the rules.”

The LCBO isn’t evil, by any means, but the extensive, lengthy, and costly testing and approvals process is one that makes it exceedingly difficult for small business owners to navigate simply for the right to sell their products to the public.)

If you want to sell whisky in Canada, things get even trickier. Canadian laws dictate that, if you want to sell whisky in this country, it needs to be aged at least three years.

Which means that guys like Barry and Barry need to dump a considerable amount of money into building a distillery (or in the Barrys case, having a custom-built distillery shipped here then assembled). They then need to dump more money into the lengthy approval and testing process and then dump whatever’s left into the various casks, ingredients, tools, space, hydro, etc. that’s required to make their whisky.

Then they can’t sell anything for three fucking years. Are you beginning to get a sense of why there aren’t more craft whisky distillers in this province?

Surely, you say, there must be an organization looking to change things. In the face of all this bureaucracy and adversity, there must be an advocacy group or a union of sorts fighting for the rights of the lowly whisky maker, right?

Well, yes.

But actually, no.

There is a group that lobbies the government regarding the laws and rules surrounding the distribution of spirits in Canada. They’re called Spirits Canada, and they bill themselves as a “national trade association representing the interests of the Canadian Distilled Spirits Industry.”

Which sounds great, right? It sounds like just the kind of group Barry and Barry need out there fighting for the rights of Canadian craft distillers. In reality though, it’s more like a group that fights for the rights of multinational companies that handle massive distribution operations and do billions and billions of dollars in business each year.

You know, the ones who need all the help they can get when it comes to shaping government policy…

On top of that, for a group called Spirits Canada, their membership is actually decidedly un-Canadian.

Check it out. Here’s a list of the eight member companies, the location of their Canadian headquarters, as well as the parent company’s actual country of origin:

Company Canadian HQ Owned by
Alberta Distillers Ltd. Calgary, AB Beam Inc. in Deerfield, Illinois
Bacardi Canada Brampton, ON Bacardi in Hamilton, Bermuda
Canadian Mist Collingwood, ON Brown-Forman in Louisville, Kentucky
Constellation Spirits Not sure where their Canadian headquarters are Constellation Brands Inc. in Victor, New York
Corby Distilleries Toronto, ON Corby Distilleries Limited in Toronto, Ontario CANADA! (oh, wait they’re 48% owned by Pernod Ricard, in France)
Diageo Etobicoke, ON Diageo in London, England
Hiram Walker Windsor, ON Despite being named after a Canadian and founded and operating for a considerable timeout of Windsor, ON, Hiram Walker is now owned by Beam Inc. in Deerfield, Illinois
Kruger Wine and Spiritis Montreal, QC Kruger Inc. in Montreal! This one’s really Canadian! Yay!

For a company purporting to represent the interests of Canadian distillers, you’d think their membership would feature more Canadian distillers, eh?

So what can you do about it?

Well, uh, nothing really except maybe enjoy craft-distilled Canadian spirits whenever you have a chance.

Now that you know a bit about how the industry operates, you can appreciate even more how rare craft-distillers truly are. The nature of the beast is such that it’s kind of an inevitability that any smaller distillers will either get muscled out by these big guys or, best-case scenario, get swallowed up by them in a buyout.

As Barry Stein told me of the buyout option, “Yeah, well, that’s kind of the exit strategy.”

So at the end of this year, when Still Waters single malt whisky will have finally aged enough to meet the rules under Canadian law, make sure you pick up a bottle or two. It seems like there might be a short window to buy Ontario-made, single batch whisky before Still Waters inevitably becomes another subsidiary of Beam Inc.

(In the meantime you can also check out their award winning malt vodka and their blended whisky)

Lead photo courtesy of photographer, animator, and filmmaker, Paul Aihoshi.

5 thoughts on “How Canadian is Your Canadian Whisky?

  1. Good article, but I would be hesitant to criticize laws designed to ensure a minimum standard in such a renowned spirit. You hear about other countries where they sell “whisky” that is really just cane sugar spirit with a bit of Scotch mixed in. I for one am glad that distillers can’t take their new make spirit, add food colouring, and pass it off as “fine aged whisky.”

    1. I agree. The three-year age requirement is a good law.

      In fact, there is probably an argument to be made in favour of a lot of the laws governing alcohol distribution. One could argue that with less stringent laws the market would be virtually flooded with shitty brands of hooch, so you could say that strict regulations help quality control.

      However, there are certainly a lot of weird and archaic liquor laws, some seemingly just left on Ontario’s books from prohibition days.

  2. All that may be true, but those “impostors would not get much in the way of repeat business and, in this day of the interwebs, would soon be pilloried by disenchanted consumers. The true artisans, like the Barrys, would flourish over time. Free markets allow for shady operators, but they also deall with them mercilessly.

Leave a Reply to benjamintjohnson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s