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Buying whisky at the LCBO - the trials and tribulations of an Ontarian whisky lover

Jonathan Ore is a freelance journalist from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Being a journalism student inevitably led him to hard liquor and, thankfully, an appreciation for the finer spirits. He also contributes to the local nerd site Dork Shelf, and can sometime be found in the newsroom working for CBCNews.ca

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A visit to my local liquor store is hardly a relaxing experience. It’s located at the commercial centre of Toronto, Ontario’s downtown core. With one entrance mere steps from the subway, store traffic goes in and out at an alarming rate. A weary young man in a suit on his way home from work browses the wines for dinner at home with his wife. A cadre of frat boys load their basket with tall boys and scope the half-aisle composed entirely of flavoured vodkas. An older couple takes a close look at the labels on the vintage wines from France. Everyone is in a hurry. On weekends, the line-ups are long and the chit-chat is short.

When it comes to buying imported wines or single-malt whisky in Ontario, there’s really no other source.

For a whisky lover living in the area, the selections are meagre, save for the huge and impressive aisle of Canadian whiskies. Clearly, this is not a specialty shop like The Whisky Exchange. It’s where everyone goes for their spirits, booze and hooch, because with few exceptions it’s the only game in town – and it’s owned by the government.

Since 1927 most alcoholic drinks in Ontario can only be sold at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, or the LCBO. Every brand of liquor sold here must be approved for distribution in the province, and the company contributes dividends to the Government of Ontario. Does this terrify you? Does the idea of a government-owned liquor store sound like the communists have won?

A government run store

The LCBO is a crown corporation, which means it sends regular reports to the Ontario provincial government, along with a percentage of its profits. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the government’s most profitable assets, generating $1.41 billion (CDN) for the province in the 2009-10 fiscal year – and that’s before taxes. The company itself is monstrous, with 611 stores across Ontario, employing 3500 full-time and 3800 part-time staff, offering more than 2,500 brands of wine, beer, spirits and other drinks.

The LCBO’s role as the nexus for all things alcoholic can be problematic – especially on weekends or the holiday season.

The LCBO’s role as the nexus for all things alcoholic can be problematic – especially on weekends or the holiday season. When dates like Christmas or New Year’s rolls by, desperate shoppers can turn irrational. “Whenever we were about to close the store,” says college student and LCBO employee Arthur Marris, “there would always be customers coming late asking if they could just buy a bottle of wine or spirit. Always. Once I reply to them with ‘Sorry, we are closed,’ they get upset. One Thanksgiving a few years ago, a customer told my co-worker that he ruined her Thanksgiving by not letting her in into the store, when we were clearly closed.”

While the LCBO isn’t an absolute monopoly, you won’t find a bottle of Scotch at the grocer’s or drug store. The only other major distributor of alcohol is The Beer Store, owned by hops giants Labatt, Molson-Coors and Sleeman. Short of dining in at a restaurant, Ontarians will only find whisky at the LCBO or duty-free outlets. While its practices are generally the same as any large-scale drinks retailer (it’s the largest such company, government-owned or otherwise, in Canada), the complete absence of independent liquor stores will be noticeable to any visitors. According to David Cacciottolo, product manager for brown spirits and duty-free, the LCBO keeps this near-monopoly in mind. When it comes to imported wines or single-malt whisky, “there’s really no other source,” says Cacciottolo. “That being said, we take that responsibility very seriously to provide selection and new products and have a competitive portfolio for our customers.”

Protecting Canadian whiskies

On the Canadian front, that involves actively promoting local wineries and distilleries. Canadian whisky is one of the LCBO’s strongest segments. In most stores you can find every variety of Canadian whisky available in the province on one packed shelf, from the common go-to names like Crown Royal to some labels you won’t likely find outside of Canada, like Alberta Springs 10-year-old or Wiser’s 18-year-old. The whisky commitment doesn’t stop there, though. “I don’t think we necessarily favour the Ontario to the detriment of others. Just because we brought in more Canadian whiskies doesn’t mean we’d be satisfying people coming in looking for Scotch.”

Indeed, the LCBO has been ramping up its whisky offerings from all parts of the world. In October 2010 they opened The Whisky Shop, a specialty section in about 90 of their stores. Borne out of a similar program wherein premium whiskies shared the spotlight with other spirits, it was the malts that got the most attention. As part of this new initiative, whose opening coincided with Whisky Live’s stop in Toronto, several new brands were introduced into the region, including Glenlivet 25-year-old, Bruichladdich Classic, and Canadian newcomers like Forty Creek’s Confederation Oak Reserve and White Owl clear whisky.

Choice of whisky

The Whisky Shop is best experienced at its flagship store in Toronto’s Summerhill neighbourhood, a gorgeous heritage building that used to be the North Toronto Station for the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways. Walking through the place feels like visiting a museum as much as shopping, with a railroad navigation theme (Track 4 = premium spirits) and a tastings schedule in the repurposed foundation to the clock tower. The Whisky Shop here is large and stocked with more premium whiskies than anywhere else in the province, from a wall filled entirely of Glenfiddich to a curiosity that blends Canadian whisky with Scottish malt from Benrinnes.

The really esoteric brands, and ones that are smoky and peaty, are growing and there’s growing interest in them, but they still make up a small part of the business

The double-edged sword of this is that only a handful of LCBO stores in the province can truly satisfy a whisky nut. Cacciottolo admits that he has to keep in mind the tastes of the majority before splurging on smaller segments. For the smaller-but-growing Irish contingent, that means lesser-known Cooley whiskies are in small quantities. For Scotch, familiar Speyside blends and malts take precedence. “The really esoteric brands, and ones that are smoky and peaty, [are] growing and there’s growing interest in them, but they still make up a small part of the business. The more approachable styles dominate the market and probably always will.

“That being said, people are becoming more adventurous and more knowledgeable and are looking to discover. And what we’re seeing is that the share of single malts is growing, and the share of blended Scotch whisky is stagnating or declining. There’s definitely a graduation from blends to single malts. And as that happens people are going to look for what’s new or different.” It’s a testament to one of the LCBO’s more understated benefits: a larger store will offer many more varieties of drinks than a sketchy liquor store/smoke shop in the United States never would. Those frat boys who came in looking for a 24 of Budweiser might find a premium local pilsner, and someone familiar with little more than Johnnie Walker Red Label may walk out with a lesser-known item like The Black Grouse.

A tour of the LCBO in the Greater Toronto Area alone yields some lessons about what it’s like living with a virtual monopoly on whisky, but also, oddly, about what it means to be Canadian. The airport terminal-like Yonge-Dundas location speaks to the diversity and often frantic lifestyle of Torontonians. And the Summerhill store, in all its historic glory, speaks to a respect for the cultures around the world that stop off at its tracks.

In the global scheme of liquor shops, the LCBO hits a fine middle ground. It isn’t as lavish as Dublin airport’s Irish Whisky Collection, but neither are their locations as sketchy as some of the smoke-filled dives found along some American interstates. And while the sumptuous Whisky Shop is restricted to only a handful of locations, all stores rely on whisky as one of its pillars – which, to this fan of the spirit, is probably as it should be.

Comments

alinfini wrote:

Welcome to canadian democracy... If you're not quite happy with Ontario LCBO, just cross over Quebec and you'll end up at SAQ, same story, even worst for Single malt lovers!

03 June 2011 15:00

markjedi1 wrote:

Wow. I had no idea buying single malt in Canada was such an adventure. It's a bit like in Sweden, then. That's a pity. Luckily that's not how it goes in Belgium. We are out of a government for a year, almost, but we can always buy Scotch... :)

03 June 2011 19:41

Dramlette wrote:

What a timely article, @Victor and I are currently in Canada. This trip was my first visit to an LCBO, but @Victor had his first experiences in April. His trip in April was to explore and buy the Canadian whiskies. I was eager to have my own experience. It is strikingly different from our experience in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

Since we were visiting Quebec and Ottawa, the best selection of whisky that we found was in Ottawa at the Rideau & King Edward LCBO, which features a Vintage floor. The Whisky Store is found here, along with better wines and a Tasting Bar. I was thrilled to be able to buy a bottle of Glenfarclas 15 has a which is nigh impossible to find in the US. My reading of the reviews and comments on this site had wet my appetite for it and buying a bottle was the best part of my day in Ottawa. Yes, the Parliament Building is lovely, but let's get home and crack open that Glenfarclas.

All in all, the prices are often higher than in our home territory. Other than the Canadian whiskies, the selection, especially in the smaller towns and certainly in the SAQs, is limited. The SAQs are just sad for a whisky lover. But, I must give props to the design and decor of the LCBOs. They make most liquor stores in US look like standard grocery stores. Efficient, but not pretty. The LCBOs are elegant places by comparison.

03 June 2011 22:46

Victor wrote:

Nice article. A well stocked LCBO store has better product variety than the average US store, but is not as well stocked as the better US stores. The lesser stocked LCBO stores don't have much but Canadian products in the whisky category. The LCBO stores are definitely more attractively presented visually than almost all US liquor stores.

As for Quebec SAQ, the special order catalog for Scottish malts has some range, but the typical store's on-hand inventory for almost all whisky is ridiculously limited, and the special order catalog list for any whiskies other than Canadian or Scottish is almost non-existant.

03 June 2011 23:09

michaelschout wrote:

I agree with what's being said about SAQ stores, they are quite pitiful when it comes to whiskies of any sort. But, if beer is your thing, the grocery stores in Quebec usually have excellent deals compared to The Beer Store or LCBO in Ontario.

In my opinion the LCBO is more than adequate for 99% of the people in Ontario and the better stocked ones usually have a decent selection of basic whiskies. One thing that I don't think was mentioned in the well-written article is the LCBO's Vintages stores which @Dramlette mentioned. Vintages deals primarily with wines, but every once in a while they'll introduce for a limited time a more uncommon whisky like Springbank for example.

I do however have a minor problem with the LCBO and shipping alcohol into Ontario. The LCBO makes it extremely difficult to order any alcohol online from another country and have it shipped to Ontario, which is why many online liquor stores won't bother sending shipments to Ontario. It's not just a matter of paying importation fees, it's a matter of paying importation fees along with taxes, duties, and levies, then filling out multiple forms to consign the shipment to LCBO etc. etc., and then it's only a 50% chance that you'll get your alcohol. From personal experience a 750ml bottle of whisky will cost at least three times as much as was originally paid for it due to the taxes, on top of the shipping charges.

04 June 2011 00:02

chrisrbarrett wrote:

I understand all of the complaints and constraints on buying Scotch whisky in Ontario, but I will say that at least they've made it possible for me to buy good bottles. It requires diligence and patience (and occasionally $$$) to keep eyes on inventory and locations, but all of the information is in the database and is searchable 99% of the time. There are some delightful scraping APIs that make it possible to get an email when Ardbeg Corryvreckan finally appears on the shelf in a nearby store (albeit at $179.95 CAN a bottle (say 110 GBP)).

On the other side of the coin, we received Kilchoman Summer Release 2010 about 8 months after original release but for under $40 CAN (say 25 GBP). It appeared in the database about 6 months before the inventory showed up and I spent a good part of that 6 months bugging the import representative here during that time.

The LCBO has more buying power than just about any other single entity in the liquor world and the sales managers of distilleries are excited when they get an order for their products, but they have to continue checking back on the website to see if the LCBO wants to buy what they've offered. When an order is received often times it will specify a timeline for delivery of 4-6 months in the future for a whisky the distiller has on palettes and ready to go.

All told; it's nothing short of fascinating what Ontario Liquor Control has evolved into.

04 June 2011 00:40

Lars wrote:

The Manitoba version MLCC is very similar to the Ontario board. We too are unable to import in our own scotch. However the variety of Whisky available is astounding. Naturally the push is on Canadian whisky but there are aprox 115 single malts scotchs available as well as well as other whisky's from around the world, Japan, China, etc. If your looking for a particular bottle on their product list all you have to do is call the Commission in your area and they do the work for you, even bringing it in for you at your closest commision. None of the commissions are full shelf here.

After reviewing the price list of the LCBO the prices on more than a few bottles are higher than what we get charged here(makes me glad to be a Manitoban) ;)

The MLCC has in my opinion improved dramatically since the opening of the private wine stores in the 90's. They are much more customer orientated now from offering samples to taste, courses to take( wine and whisky and food), or just overall knowledge of there product they carry. In short I have nothing but praise for what the MLCC has evolved into but I do wish I could get my hands on a few the of the special bottles I see here.

04 June 2011 15:35

JoeVelo wrote:

I totally agree with @alinfini. It`s difficult to get decent products here in Quebec. When I travel to the US, it seems that a lot of liquor stores do have very good whiskies. At Grand Slam Liquors in Vero Beach Florida, I got Ardmore Traditional Cask, Longmorn 15, Compass Box products, Macallan products, Laphroaig, Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX, and all at a fraction of the price I would have paid if it was available in Quebec. In Plattsburg NY, I saw Bruichladdich Peat, Bruichladdich Links. But a recent browse of the online site of SAQ showed some signs of improvement. I hope it is a trend that will stay for good.

10 June 2011 22:24

Mikerocosmos wrote:

Actually, I disagree with the comment that the SAQ has a worse selection than the LCBO. I find their selection to be smaller but with a far wider variety, especially when it comes to Japanese whiskeys. They are also much easier to deal with when you need to special order or transfer a special bottle.

11 July 2011 01:51

tfahey1298 wrote:

chrisbarrett made ome good comments about the LCBO - the LCBO does have a very good range of single malts and other whiskies, but many times the unit prices can be daunting, especially for the more esoteric or non-mass market expressions. I, too, have been waiting to see when the Ardbeg Corryvrecken would be available... as of 9:50pm Aug 18, only 2 bottles were in stock at the Hwy401 & Weston Rd location. Unless you live in or near Toronto, it is sometimes difficult to get the rarer whiskies (unless you make good friends with the local LCBO outlet manager - then he or she may be able to pull stock from another location). Two weeks ago I made a road trip to visit friends in Peace River, AB. Went west via the USA and stopped at Binny's Beverage Depot in Chicago. Wow! Binny's is like a Walmart for alcoholic beverages! Nothing like that in Canada. Picked up a Corryvrecken for US$79.99 and an Uigeadail for US$69.99 (LCBO - 1 btl in the Uxbridge store, C$164.95). The markup and taxes "earned" by the LCBO and the Ontario government are almost sinful (do they call them sin taxes because of the consumers or the amounts extorted by the crown corp?). IMHO, the LCBO could loosen up a little when it comes to individuals importing certain items. Enough of my rant - I will doubly enjoy these two malts knowing I got them for half the price.

19 August 2011 03:09
StevieC

StevieC wrote:

It is a shame living in a puritan minded province that controls some of the great pleasures in life, such a liquor, wine and beer. Their profit last year was ridiculous. As already mentioned in this thread, the province will not allow us, as customers, to order liquor online, from websites like the Whisky Exchange. The mark up to have them import a requested label is astronomical! Luckily, Vintages offer more rare whiskies (to the Canadian market anyway). Their new Whisky Shop (located in select stores) is a far cry from whisky specialist stores located in the UK, such as Milroys. When I travel to the US of A, I stock up at a liquor price or Duty Free. I was watching the news yesterday, and there was a report put out by the Auditor General, mentioning that the LCBO does not purchase products at the lowest price (spending more $$$ than expected). As a result, higher prices for us, the customer. One benefit of shopping at the LCBO is that many stores have fairly knowledgable product consultants. This sometimes makes decision making easier.

08 December 2011 18:45
dsg

dsg wrote:

StevieC hits the nail on the head. In general the prices are high and the selection is low in Ontario. I buy the vast majority of whisky when I travel simply because I want to try new things. I would be willing to pay the tax and reasonable duty if we could simply order online as you can throughout nearly all of the Western world.

At least I get to look forward to my trip to Ohio and Kentucky at the end of this month. The bourbon aisle at a Kentucky party store is larger than my entire local LCBO.

08 December 2011 19:06
StevieC

StevieC wrote:

Dsg....I too love venturing through party stores in Kentucky. Have you been to the Liquor Barn? What a huge selection of bourbon! Perhaps oneday the bureaucrats at Queens Park will step into the 21st century and step away from old fashioned policies toward liquor.

08 December 2011 22:59

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