Notable Potables: Bar Report


When it comes to beverage alcohol sales, this year’s Bar Report finds it’s all about quality offerings

Canadians continue to lift their glasses — and leave serious cash on the table — choosing better quality offerings in the process. Nationwide, alcohol sales in 2010 were just shy of $20 billion, with wine, beer and spirits experiencing increased sales.

While beer sales were less than stellar during the past decade, they’re kicking into high gear now as craft beer continues to pick up steam. Beyond that, Canadians are experimenting with flavoured, organic and gluten-free beers from microbreweries, while more taps are cropping up in bars and restaurants around the country.

And, when it comes to wines, the romance with reds continues, while sales increase in both whites and rosés, too. The growing “local” movement and generally better quality means the rise of Canadian wines shows no sign of slackening. Though spirit sales are flat, there’s growth in vodka, premium whisky and rum. Meanwhile, between all their muddling and shaking, mixologists agree there’s a spirit on the rise. It’s not doing too much at the retail level, but gin is big in bars.

Even with this growth, the situation could be better for restaurateurs. Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Toronto-based Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA), says on-premise alcohol sales have actually dropped in the last couple of years, with a steep decline evident in B.C. last year. He attributes this to the introduction of HST as well as new penalties for drivers with a blood-alcohol limit of 0.5 instead of the previous 0.8.

When it comes to a drop in sales, the stats tell the same tale. On-premise sales are down 3.5 to 4.5 per cent in the first half of the year, according to Statistics Canada and the Crest/NPD Group. Based on this, the CRFA concludes sales are expected to decline in 2011. Despite the doom and gloom, below are a number of trends that could help boost the bottom line.


Now that Prosecco has been established as a contender on a variety of lists, Moscato is quickly becoming the wine du jour. Sales of the soft, sweetish Italian sparkling variation of muscat have increased by 90 per cent in the U.S., according to Nielsen, and sommeliers across the States are adding it to their lists.

In Ontario, the LCBO reports significant growth [of Moscato] from a small base: it’s almost doubled since 2008, with the biggest increase in the past year. In Alberta, Brad Royale, wine director for Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts, with four lodges and four restaurants in Alberta, says “It’s always been on our menus…. I can’t say it sells in heaps though.” If trends in the U.S. and Ontario are any indication, it will soon.

Royale is bullish about Rhône Valley reds from France. Blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, Rhônes are dry yet fruity, medium to fuller bodied. “We’re finding that with people who like the bigger California Pinots, you can move them into a Grenache-based Rhône. It’s a juicier style.” Royale’s customers are not the only ones who enjoy the Rhône; for the year-ended March 31, 2011, LCBO’s Vintages reported a 27-per-cent jump in sales of Southern Rhône wines.

Other popular varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, especially those from California. In fact, the U.S. experienced its best-ever sales in Canada last year ($308M), thanks to a good exchange rate.

Additionally, California wines are especially popular in Quebec, where sales rose a stunning 30 per cent. California Pinot Noirs — bigger and fruitier than their Burgundy cousins — also continue to grow. Argentina’s Malbec has seen its growth rate slow, but it’s more popular than ever, and the country is now comfortably ensconced in the top-five import source list. Among the big reds at many restaurants, Merlot sales are the weakest. Royale devotes an entire page of his wine list to Pinot Noirs with only a few Merlots. “Ten years ago, it would have been a whole page of Merlots. People who still drink Merlot are drinking better Merlot. The people who used to drink the cheaper Merlots now drink Malbec.”

Geoff Boyd, director of Bar and Concept Development at Vancouver-based Joey Restaurant, with restaurants in four provinces and the U.S., sees a trend toward  aromatic and unoaked wines, which helps explain the German Wine Institute’s findings that  show exports to Canada rose 15 per cent last year. “Riesling and Gewürztraminer are doing well in the West, but in Ontario Italian wines are gaining momentum, especially Pinot Grigio,” he says, adding, “Chardonnay is declining. Some former heavy hitters are selling virtually nothing. Customers seem to want something brighter, fresher and zingier.”

For Alex Cruz, manager of DNA restaurant in elegant Old Montreal, it’s all about whites, especially lighter and unoaked varieties. Riesling is doing well — both Alsace and German. France still dominates in Quebec, but heavyweights such as Bordeaux and Burgundy are losing out to Languedoc-Roussillon and the southwest with its natural, biodynamic and low-sulphites wines. Rhône remains solid, with its whites getting stronger. Southern Italian reds are happening right now too, adds Cruz. Looking ahead, the DNA manager would like to add aromatic Spanish and Portuguese whites, including Albarino, Arinto and Rueda, to his wine list.


While Old World wines will always remain popular, the growth of local cuisine is fuelling interest in wines from our own backyard. “At DNA our main focus is Canadian,” explains Cruz, noting 85 per cent of his sales are domestic. “In Ontario, I like Prince Edward County for Pinot Noir. I like Niagara Syrahs — they’re a little lighter and remind me of the Rhône: wines of character, good spice and good acidity. I also like Gamay Noir. From British Columbia, I like Cabernet Franc and Syrah as well as the whites.” B.C. trumps Ontario on his list, with Road 13  of Oliver being the biggest winery he buys from and the others even smaller, as he prefers “hands-on” operations.

In B.C., VQA sales rose 11 per cent, while in Ontario there was an increase of seven per cent. An increasing number of restaurants now feature local product, including some in Toronto and Niagara that offer only VQA. Will Predhomme, sommelier at Toronto’s Canoe restaurant, says approximately a third of his list is Canadian. He has seen steady increases in Canadian wine sales and notes he’s now selling “slightly fewer California and Australian wines. “The big trend in food is farm to table, and in wine it’s about the area,” says Predhomme.

“Wines and grapes that are appropriate to their region are the ones moving.” On the subject of Ontario’s terrific 2010 vintage, Predhomme says, “You’re going to see a lot of great reds from Ontario. We’re now seeing the 2009 reds coming out, which are good in a cool-climate style, but just watch out for the 2010’s.”

Canadian winemakers would love it if restaurateurs and sommeliers took heed of Cruz’s parting comment. “What I’d really like to see is Canadian restaurants putting Canadian wines first. It’s so important for our industry,” says the 27-year-old Montrealer. “It may be very young, but there are people making great, quality wines.”


The $4.9 billion Canadians spent in the year-ending March 31, 2010 was just 0.7-per-cent higher than the previous year, yet  overall sales were up because rising vodka and rum sales offset other losses.

According to Trace Hanlon of Vancouver-based Select Wine Merchants, spiced rum is “hot,” as is overproof (higher-alcohol) rum. And, fuelled by the growth of Captain Morgan, the flavoured rum category grew by 18.7 per cent, making it the fastest growing of any rum segment. In Quebec, sales of rum rose more than any other spirit in 2010 — up 12 per cent. In B.C., total alcohol sales in 2010, including rum, were down, yet Captain Morgan Spiced Rum posted the biggest increase of any major brand — up 10.2 per cent.

Across the country, nothing stands in the way of the vodka juggernaut. There are big increases in the East, and, even in the lacklustre B.C. market, vodka managed a small increase. Smirnoff remains the top brand, but brands such as Grey Goose, Belvedere and Ketel One — the “super premiums” — also netted huge sales increases. In the premium category, Hanlon is big on Russian Standard. He says it’s doing great business in Ontario. But spirits are most fun in cocktails, and consumer interest is growing in more bitter and alcohol-heavy old-school cocktails as well as fresh, fruity and sweeter new ones.

In terms of ingredients, shrubs are up-and-coming; but don’t look for them at a garden centre. A shrub is a sweet, tart syrup made from fruit-infused vinegar and sugar boiled down to a concentrate and was a way to preserve fruit in the pre-refrigeration era. Wes Galloway, Board member of the Ontario branch of the Vancouver-based Canadian Professional Bartenders’ Association, and bar manager at

Black Beans Steakhouse and Lounge in Port Hope, Ont., says shrubs were originally a concentrated fruit drink: one part shrub to nine parts water, but “nowadays bartenders use shrub concentrate as one of many ingredients.  Shrubs work in cocktails and mocktails — they’re very versatile.” The ingredient is part of the ongoing “everything-old-is-newagain” trend, where classic cocktails from 80 to 100 years ago are being revived.

When it comes to juices, fresh and local are big trends. “In B.C. it’s huge — customers demand it,” says Galloway. “In Toronto it’s being asked for by the foodie crowd, so it’s something bartenders are ahead of the curve on.” The key is to know your market — it’s probably not wise for a local pub to offer $16 cocktails. In Port Hope, Ont., Galloway prices his “between $9 and $12. And, if you explain to customers what they’re getting, they don’t mind paying.”

Switching gears, there’s been growth in premium Canadian whisky, and the same is true for single-malt scotches as sales in Ontario rose 5.5 per cent last year, with single-malts increasing by 16.7 per cent. However, if you really want to get ahead of the curve, take a look at a spirit that’s not doing much at the retail level yet. Gin sales are up 4.2 per cent in Ontario and down 2.4 per cent in B.C. In Alberta, Mike Shaddock, manager of a Willow Park store in Calgary, says, other than a bump in premium products, sales are stable.

According to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, gin sales have been flatlining at around 2.5 per cent of spirits sales. But bartenders are excited: “Everybody loves gin,” says Galloway, “Prohibition-style gin cocktails are coming back in droves.”

The Toronto Temperance Society has nothing to do with stern, bonneted ladies on the wagon — it’s a place devoted to drinking. The year-old private club, located on bustling College Street, is all about cocktails. The place is sepia-toned and has banquettes, fusty wallpaper and low lights. The early jazz adds a pre-cool feel and bartender Oliver Stern looks like a railway station clerk circa 1925, neatly bearded and sporting a sombre waistcoat as he mixes Prohibition-era cocktails. The club offers 22 cocktails, “predominantly classics but usually with a variation,” says Stern. “Our gin and tonic — made with a homemade syrup — is most popular, followed by Manhattans.”

Once a month, the club hosts an event for members. For Botanist gin, the distiller travelled from Scotland. “Everyone had a sample, and we made some cocktails,” said Stern, adding something restaurateurs looking to boost sales and generate excitement around their drinks should find interesting: “The liquor companies are all over me to do tastings of their products.” Stern says producers and agents are open to providing promotional samples and sending representatives to host events.

The cognoscenti may be abuzz about more bitter and old-fashioned cocktails, but Joey’s Boyd —whose restaurants are large and serve a broad demographic — says you can’t ignore that people like what they know. “Our number 1 cocktail, regardless of promotions, is our Bellini. You have to progress people’s tastes — gradually get them from the Bellini to something more exotic, but customers will go back to what they know if the new products don’t deliver. People love our gin and tonic with a twist, but when you get into the Negronis and Manhattans, it’s very, very small.” Overall, a good cocktail list, like a good cocktail, needs to be balanced.


For the first time since the 1990s, beer sales in Canada grew faster than wine. David Ort, a Toronto-based beer and food blogger, says more people are taking the beverage seriously. Like many others, Ort is excited about craft beers. According to Ort, it’s great for restaurants, because many customers find wine intimidating. Additionally, some foods, such as Southeast Asian, pair better with beer than wine. From the customer’s point of view, another bonus is, “beer is a single-serving commitment — they can easily try a different one.”

And, with interest in beer growing, it’s no surprise there’s also an increasing fascination with beer events. Les Murray, president of the Toronto Festival of Beer, was pleased with this year’s event. Seventeen years ago, the first festival attracted 2,000 people; this year, the number increased to 30,000. “It used to be 70/30 male/female, and now it’s 50/50,” says Murray. The festival features a “Girl’s Guided Beer Tour,” in which groups of women taste beers and try food pairings.

The interest in beer fests is noticeable across Canada; out West, Edmonton and Calgary both boast an “International Beer Festival,” and the Seaport Beerfest in Halifax is now in its fifth year, offering a “Ladies VIP Brew Tour.” The Vancouver Craft Beer Week started in 2010, attracting 2,500 ticket holders. This year’s event attracted “5,000 guests, along with countless people attending walk-up events,” according to organizer Chris Bjerrisgaard. In Montreal, the Mondial de la Bière was founded in 1996 and this year attracted more than 80,000 visitors. In a wonderful reverse-colonial twist, in 2009 it launched a European version in Strasbourg, France’s leading beer city.

DNA’s Cruz is one of many restaurateurs on the beer bandwagon. “We have more than 120 labels, all craft. It’s a big, big, big market. We even do business with people who make beer in their garages. We’re seeing beers aged in oak and other interesting flavour additions.” Montreal’s DNA restaurant also offers flights and suggests food pairings.

Need more proof that craft beer is hot? According to the CRFA’s Whyte, craft beer ranked seventh in the association’s “Canadian Chefs’ Survey.” And, at the LCBO, craft beers rose 54 per cent, even as major import  brands such as Heineken, Becks and Stella Artois suffered double- digit drops and overall beer sales saw a slight decline.

Proof of the trend is plain to see at bars such as Wvrst — the stylish update of a Munich beer hall located on Toronto’s King Street West. Bright and noisy, the hotspot offers beer, sausages and fries, with a small selection of wine and cider. The restaurant, owned by Aldo Lanzillotta, opened this summer and immediately generated buzz. So what’s selling well? “People love the whole craft beer thing,” says the restaurateur. With a commitment to local cuisine, 80 per cent of Wvrst’s beer sales are craft. Plans are afoot to introduce flights — four or five small samples of different beers that cost between $14 and $16.

Wvrst also regularly features brewers’ tastings, especially during Oktoberfest. Just like the liquor companies, brewers are keen to hold tastings, says Lanzillotta. They’ll also provide free samples to customers.

When it comes to education, one of the newest trends Murray sees slowly developing is sommelier-style certification for beer. Two organizations providing education and certification include Prud’homme, a three level program launched in 2009 in Toronto by Roger Mittag. Several hundred people have earned qualifications. In the U.S., the Cicerone program of Chicago has graduated another several hundred “Certified and Master Cicerones” and more than 5,000 “Certified Beer Servers. Just as many restaurants require sommeliers to be certified, Murray expects beer knowledge credentials to become more important over time.

The old men drinking draft in the tavern have largely moved on, and it seems beer is moving on up.

Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association’s Top Trends in Alcohol:

  • Locally produced wine
  • Craft beer
  • Micro-distilled artisan liquor
  • Organic wine/beer/cocktail
  • Bar chefs and mixologists

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