Ontario Duty Free tackles supply issue through local craft spirits

Craft Spirits at Queenston Lewiston Duty Free

Duty free stores across Ontario in Canada are now targeting local craft spirits like they never have before as a way to offset some global supply chain issues.

Chris Foster, owner of Queenston Lewiston Duty Free in Niagara Falls, Canada says the local Ontario craft spirits fill multiple needs for the land border duty free stores in the province.

“These local products will help our shelves look full, satisfy the customer needs of buying local for those who are always looking for souvenir products, and it is also helping out small businesses in our communities,” says Foster.

Canadian land border duty free stores were particularly devastated by COVID-19 store closures, a situation that was further exasperated since the Canadian government did not drop all COVID-19 entry restrictions until the end of September.

Craft Spirits at Blue Water Bridge Duty Free

“Even with the restrictions lifted it is still not easy to get people to travel across the land border. Airports are a little bit better. But it has been challenging,” says Foster. “It is no secret that the supply chain challenges throughout the world have created significant impacts for travel retail. Things are not back to anywhere near normal here, but we are trying.”

Featuring local Ontario gins, vodkas, whiskeys, moonshines, and liqueurs is one way the duty free stores are looking to bring more people into their stores.

“Our strategy for Ontario Duty Free was to put a big push on craft products, local craft distillers that are within the Ontario market. There are approximately 60-70 craft distilleries throughout the region that we could be showcasing in our store. Most of these distilleries are within our communities and they are spread out all across Ontario. We’ve been trying to grow some relationships with them.”

Craft Spirits at Ambassador Bridge Duty Free.

Foster’s Ontario Craft program with local distilleries began in September. So far 28 craft distillers are in the program in nine duty free stores across the region.

“It is fairly new, but the feedback so far has been fantastic. We are taking a very good approach to this. We are going all in and the distillers have reacted quite well to it. They are interested in doing lots of different programming in the stores. They see it as a marketing opportunity,” says Foster.

Each Ontario duty free store is featuring the local craft spirits in different ways, but Foster says that his store, along with Blue Water, Ambassador, and 1,000 Islands Duty Free each have a specific section that highlights just Ontario craft spirits.

Ontario Craft Spirits on display at 1000 Islands Duty Free.

“We have also integrated the local products within the categories themselves,” says Foster.

The craft distiller program has been tailored after the Ontario wine program, which has been a huge success for Ontario duty free for years.

“It is a very similar direct relationship between ourselves, rather than having to go through the liquor board to do everything. We are able to deal directly with the distillers.”

Foster says he wanted to bring in more of these local craft products earlier, but there were government restrictions in place that have since been lifted.

“I would have loved to have done this years ago, but there were some governmental issues and some obstacles with the LCBO that prevented us from really doing a good job at this.”

Foster hopes these local craft spirits remain a permanent part of his store.

“Why do I want to sell a keychain or a t-shirt when I can sell a bottle of spirits? There is nothing more Canadian that what most of these guys are doing with spirits. We have 130 products so far. I see a very big future in this if we play our cards right.”