Pinot Grigio bumps Chardonnay from the top spot on white wine lists, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates reds, craft beer’s explosive growth continues, and premium brands drive spirit sales
Beer isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, of course, but overall volume sales are ho-hum. To wit, such stats for Canadian beer show a 1.9-per-cent drop from 2013 to 2014, and the decline was not offset by the 0.7-per-cent increase in imported beer sales, according to Statistics Canada’s 2014 alcohol sales summary.
It was the same story in the U.S., says Donna Hood-Crecca, senior director and on-premise beverage consultant for Technomic, a Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm. “[In] 2014, overall beer volume was down 0.4 per cent,” she says. But don’t be deterred. “Beer is not dead. It’s a very dynamic category — craft beer is seeing double-digit growth and imports, especially from Mexico, are growing strongly,” adds Hood-Crecca. In Ontario, figures from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) show craft beer was up 72.5 per cent in 2014 over 2012.
That doesn’t mean the big brands are floundering. On football Sundays, big-brand brews dominate sales at G Sports Bar and Grill in Vancouver, where 24 HD TV screens stream seven satellite feeds of sports. On other days, craft beer (including flavoured offerings) gains ground. “Eight of our taps are local breweries and half of those are flavoured,” says Lindsey Twinn, bar manager. She works closely with craft breweries, whose beer now accounts for approximately 40 per cent of sales. “The reps are amazing. If you support their product, you’ll benefit hugely from their support [for promotional efforts],” she says.
The Metropolitan Billiards Club in Edmonton has 25 sports screens, plus 15 billiard tables, and offering options is key, says Sarah McNair, bar manager. With more than 100 imported beers and 50 taps, featuring everything from lagers and bitters to fruit beers, The Metro attracts people who want to try something new. Craft beer accounts for approximately 40 per cent of sales; it doesn’t hurt that McNair has a trick for attracting big-brand customers to smaller brews. “If they’re nervous about trying something, a lower price will make it an easier sell,” she confides.
The popularity of individual spirits is always evolving, but the category only showed a marginal 0.5-per-cent increase in sales by value for 2014 over 2013, according to Statistics Canada. Indeed, the change is occurring within the segment. Thomas Beraud Sudreau, area manager for Canada at Rémy Cointreau, has noticed Canadians are migrating to higher-quality offerings. “Premium products are doing well. In brown spirits, premium bourbons and single-malt scotches are growing even as more affordable whiskies are declining. Gin is the fastest-growing category.” The area manager calls the premium Hendricks this year’s “it” gin. “Every high-end cocktail bar and hotel lounge will have it, and it’s up 22 per cent in the past year,” he says.
At Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver, quality cocktails are successful — not one particular spirit. “The trend is towards intelligent bartending. Use fresh ingredients, make it all clear to the customer, get the balance right,” explains Cooper Tardivel, bar and lounge manager.
That said, Tardivel does note that American whiskies and mezcal are enjoying popularity. For example, tequila, which is technically a mezcal (though it’s made only from blue agave) was up 7.2 per cent in December 2014 over December 2013 at the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB). Other agaves that are made into mezcal are gaining ground in the western U.S. and Vancouver, according to Tardivel. With that mezcal growth spilling over into Canada, it could be a good niche drink to add to the menu.
After all, adding offerings is key to satisfying customers; that idea applies to mixed drinks, too. “Clients have higher expectations for cocktails. People want innovation,” explains Omar Khalil, the GM of Newtown, a multi-level bar and restaurant in Montreal. Khalil’s team reworks classics, adding fresh horseradish to a Bloody Caesar, for example.
Meanwhile, sangria, the bitter Fernet-Branca and spiced dark rums are big in Montreal this year. Although rum has been in decline in Canada, Rémy Cointreau’s Beraud Sudreau sees growth in spiced rum as well as premium and craft varieties. And, the BCLDB says imported dark rum sales rose 11.7 per cent in B.C. in 2014. On a more global level, London, U.K.-based Diageo reported sales of its Captain Morgan rum rose five per cent in North America and jumped 15 per cent in Europe in 2013.
Of course, rum isn’t always the answer. “We’re known for our cocktails, especially our Old Fashioned and Pisco Sour,” says Brynley Leach, bar manager at Montreal’s Le Slang. Leach’s Old Fashioned includes premium bourbon, and a variation features maple syrup instead of sugar. She ramps up the flavour by putting the glass inside a food smoker. “The smoke seeps into the liquid and is present on the glass, so it’s noticeable. We garnish the maple Old Fashioned with bacon,” the bar manager adds, emphasizing the premium ingredients.
But not everyone is interested in drinks with high-alcohol content. “There’s been a huge increase in demand for zero- or low-alcohol cocktails,” notes Leach. Hawksworth’s Tardivel concurs. “A lot of people don’t want to have a drink at lunchtime, but they want something more exciting than a soda water or pop,” he explains. “Our zero-proof cocktails use fresh juices and house-made syrups.”
In keeping with general alcohol category trends this year, wines have shown minimal growth overall, while the grape of choice continues to evolve. Canadian retail outlets sold $6.4-billion worth of wine in the period ended March 31, 2014, up 2.3 per cent from 2013, according to Statistics Canada. LCBO stats show Pinot Grigio is up 15.6 per cent from 2012 to 2014 and is now tied with Chardonnay as the number-1 white. Cabernet Sauvignon is up a whopping 25.6 per cent, Sauvignon Blanc is up 13.9 per cent and Riesling is up 8.2 per cent.
But those aren’t the only growing varietals. “Malbec is huge,” says Janaka Welihinda, guest services manager at Reds Midtown in Toronto. “It offers a great price/quality balance, and California [wine] — especially the Cabernet — is also big. Pinot Grigio is the big white.” In sparkling, Welihinda sees a movement from Champagne to Prosecco. “If we see a celebration at a table, we’ll just come over and offer glasses of Prosecco. Customers love that,” he says.
And, customers are starting to enjoy their wine in smaller quantities. More people are opting for by-the-glass at Reds Midtown, which offers 10 whites and 10 reds, from $8 to $15. And, the same can be said at the upscale Montecito in Toronto. Jimson Bienenstock, GM, has seen a by-the-glass revolution thanks to innovations such as the Coravin system from Burlington, Mass. It allows wines to be served without opening the bottle — instead a thin needle is used to pierce the cork before wine-destroying oxygen is replaced with inert argon gas; the cork re-seals when the needle is removed. “We can offer a glass from a $200 bottle, and we charge a standard one-fifth of the bottle price.” Approximately 40 per cent of wine sales at Montecito are by-the-glass, with prices ranging from $9 to $20, and the most expensive option is the bestseller. “Our own-label wines from California are not available anywhere else, and customers like the exclusivity. We have a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Zinfandel and a Chardonnay,” says Bienenstock of the favoured wines. Other standouts include Pinot Noir. “Pinot Grigio is very big. I also see interest in Gruner Veltliner [from Austria], and there’s growth potential there.”
Whatever the wine, securing staff buy-in is key. “It’s important that the staff knows what they are selling,” notes Reds’ Welihinda. “Enthusiasm sells more wine.” And, so does quality.
Overall, the connecting thread across the bar scene is a trend towards premium alcohol with premium ingredients. Operators are stepping up their game to offer it, and customers are obliging by paying higher prices for top-notch experiences.
Volume 48, Number 5
Written By: Alan McGinty