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October 14, 2019

Alberta’s Premium

Why booze buyers here have it better.

There’s good Scotch, there’s great Scotch and then there’s the Vintage 1964 from The Winchester Collection, a distillation that The Glenlivet released to select liquor retailers in October. The bottles are made from glass that’s hand blown by British artisans, and incorporates both rose gold and “Cairngorm Stone,” a smoky quartz gemstone that, at one time, could only be found in the Scottish highlands. The spirit inside, meanwhile, was personally laid down in 1964 by the last remaining descendant of The Glenlivet’s founder, and shielded from impatience by The Glenlivet’s Master Distillers for half a century. That cask has produced 100 bottles of pure magic that are being sold to whisky hounds around the world for $25,000 each. Only one of those bottles will make its way to Canada, and it’s going to get sold here in Alberta.

That it isn’t destined for Toronto or Vancouver isn’t necessarily a surprise, either. It doesn’t hurt that Albertans have the highest per-capita income in the country, but the final destination of that bottle of Glenlivet is about more than just money. Instead, it’s a reflection of the fact that Alberta is the only province in Canada with a fully privatized liquor market. “The difference between Alberta and the other provinces is that you and I get to decide what goes on those shelves – the market decides,” says Ivonne Martinez, the president of the Alberta Liquor Store Association. “In the rest of the country, the government gets to decide what people get to buy.” As a result, Albertans have access to more than 19,000 products – and 33,000, when you include special orders. People living in British Columbia can only access around 5,000 of them, while those in Ontario can get their hands on approximately 8,000. Saskatchewan drinkers, meanwhile, only have access to a paltry 3,000 products. You can bet that the ones living on the Saskatchewan side of Lloydminster tend to do their liquor shopping on the other side of town.

Dan Volway, the Canadian ambassador for a variety of brands that includes The Macallan, Highland Park, The Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark, says Alberta’s unique regulatory environment has far less red tape. “Anyone can bring in anything, even if it’s just a case, whereas with most provinces we’re dealing with liquor boards. We have to submit the product to them, and wait for them to make a decision on whether or not they want to bring it in. In some cases, it can take over a year from when you get the green flag to when it’s on the shelf.”

And, notwithstanding the occasional bottle of $25,000 Scotch, Alberta’s system also means consumers usually get products more cheaply. In Alberta, products are hit with a flat markup of $13.30 for spirits between 22 and 60 per cent alcohol by volume, while the levy ticks up to $17.87 on high-octane spirits over 60 per cent. In Ontario and British Columbia, taxes are levied using a percentage markup – 141 per cent for domestic spirits and 148 per cent for imports in the former, and 170 per cent on both in the latter. 

“It really makes spirits and wines at the higher end a lot more affordable,” Volway says of Alberta’s flat tax. “Things like The Macallan M, which retails for $5,000 across Canada, would retail in Alberta – if you can find it – for just over $4,000 and change.”

There’s one last variable that explains why The Glenlivet decided to sell its only Canadian bottle of Vintage 1964 in Alberta: Albertans. Ed Fong has been selling booze in Alberta since he was a university student in 1980, and today he owns and operates deVine Wines and Spirits. He says he’s seen a dramatic shift in the tastes of his customers, away from more conventional options like blended whiskies and cheaper spirits and towards things like rare bourbons and exotic single malts. “They’re far more interested in being experimental, and they’re looking for unique products,” he says.

That’s a reflection, he says, of the fact that Alberta continues to mature as both a province and a people. “We’re relatively affluent compared to many areas of the country, so we have a chance to travel more and eat and drink afar. And we take these things home. If you went to Japan and tasted their food and tried their beers and saw that they’re making really interesting whiskies, you might be interested in seeing if it’s available here. And I can honestly say, ‘yes, it is.'”

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