Examining the Resurgence of White Spirits on Restaurant Menus

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In the 1990s, white spirits were king. From the iconic White Russian to the Cosmopolitan, white spirits were at the height of their popularity. But, while white spirits were on top until about 2010, Jan Westcott, pres-ident and CEO of Spirits Canada, says consumer preference moved to whiskeys, dark and spiced rum varieties.

Now, after nearly a decade of playing second fiddle, white spirits are primed for a renaissance and familiar faces are leading the way. In fact, sales of gin, vodka and white rum all saw growth in 2019 and, according to the LCBO, white spirits accounted for more than $640-million in sales the first three quarters of its fiscal year.

While vodka is the biggest seller overall, accounting for a total of 59.9 per cent of all white-spirit sales, gin proved to be the fastest-growing spirit in the category.

“There’s been quite an explosion of interest in gin and a lot of different [brands] are coming to the market — both imported and new domestics,” says Westcott.

LCBO statistics show gin sales increased 11 per cent compared to 2018, which Westcott says can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the return to prominence of older gin brands, such as Boodles and Plymouth, and a rise in imports such as Hendricks and Tanqueray.

Another driving force in the gin industry is the craft-distillery boom, with more than 200 distilleries across the country, including small brands such as Dillon’s, as well as larger craft brands such as Ungava Spirits Co.

Westcott says the craft trend lends itself to the creation of gin. “Gins are simple to make, lend themselves to a lot of creativity and you can make them today and sell them tomorrow, something you can’t do with the aged whiskeys and rums,” she says. “Local is a big trend as well — people wanting to buy something that’s made down the street, the same sort of [demand] we saw with craft beer.”

As craft distillers continue to innovate and bring new flavours to the shelves, the popularity of craft white spirits stands to increase. Case in point, Quebec-based distiller Ungava Spirits Co., whose Ungava Gin ranks fifth on the LCBO’s top-five selling Canadian white-spirit brands — the only gin featured on the list. Vodkas from Polar Ice, Prince Igor, Iceberg and Alberta Pure round out the list.

Westcott cautions craft distillers that, despite the boom in popularity now, pain may soon follow.

“I was in the beer industry when the first small brewers came in and it took some of them 25 years to come into their own, with a number of them struggling,” says Westcott. “What people don’t understand about the beverage-alcohol business is it’s incredibly competitive — people come in with a romantic viewpoint and don’t necessarily fully appreciate how competitive it is and how limiting it is it terms of access to customer in the marketplace because of liquor boards in Canada.”

For now, at least, spirit sales continue to rise — increasing by 3.2 per cent in 2018 — and Westcott says the key to success is simple. “It’s like any other business — if you have a great product, good service and the right price, you’ll probably be successful.”

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