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

By Jonthan Ore

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.