View from the C-Suite: Corby distills a premium gin strategy

How the company is building off renewed interest in gin, launching a strategy for Ungava that's based on millennial consumption habits.


Once associated with more mature spirit drinkers, gin has been undergoing a renaissance of late, thanks to millennials’ thirst for more refreshing cocktails and ready-to-drink beverages.

The cohort, dubbed “Gineration X” by the authors of a 2017 report, have developed a liking for ultra-premium gins in particular, laying the groundwork for new entrants to the category. Gin sales increased to more than $286 million in Canada last year, up from $256 million the year before and $179 in 2011, according to Statista. It’s a trend Corby Spirit and Wine has looked to capitalize on with the acquisition of Quebec-based Ungava Gin nearly three years ago, adding to a portfolio that includes Beefeater, Plymouth and Malfy.

Ungava is made from botanicals sourced from northern Quebec, giving it as distinctive bright yellow colour and unique flavour profile. Though 75% of sales volume remains in Quebec, Corby has been rolling out the ultra-premium product nationally. Last year, retail sales increased 32% in volume, making it the fifth-largest gin brand in Canada and the largest super-premium gin (with a price point above $30) in the country by volume.

Strategy spoke to Patrick O’Driscoll, CEO of Corby Spirit and Wine, to find out what sparked renewed interest in the category and its plans for the Ungava brand.


What’s behind the resurgence of gin that you’ve observed?

It started two or three years ago. One of the reasons gin started to become interesting again was because a number of craft distillers were getting involved in the business. As craft distilling developed  making whisky is a very cash-hungry exercise; it’s easier [and less expensive] to make a non-aged product  gin gave the craft distiller an opportunity to create their own blends and [to leave] their own stamp. That has benefited not only these new craft brands, but also reinvigorated interest in established brands.

Right now in Canada, [gin] is contributing the largest incremental addition to the overall spirits market. It has added about $38 million additional retail sales over the last 12 months.

Other alcoholic beverage categories, including beer, appear to be experiencing a similar trend towards premiumization. How long do you expect this trend to persist

In this world of globalization, there’s a very strong counter-movement among consumers to look local and to find brands that have local relevance and have something that’s very differentiated. On top of that, another macro-trend, particularly in a market like Canada, where spirits consumption is relatively mature  it’s growing between 1% and 2% in volume and maybe 2.5% and 3.5% in value  we’re not really seeing consumers drink a lot more. What we are seeing is that they’re being a bit more discerning in their spend, trading up and looking for brands that have points of differentiation and a perceived strong quality. We may have movement from one category to another as interest moves, but I think the trend towards drinking less but drinking better is fairly well entrenched at the moment.

Recent research suggests that the Gen Z cohort consumes alcohol less frequently than millennials and boomers. How are you preparing for that next generation customer that is less inclined to drink? 

Gen Z is just coming into legal drinking age, so we’re probably starting to see the tip of that. We saw a bit of that with younger millennials. It’s incumbent on us to make sure that we have the type of product that these consumers are looking for. They tend to be a little bit more health conscious and more discerning about what’s in a product, where it’s coming from. So we need to make sure as we focus on our existing brands and on innovation, that we’re continuing to adapt our portfolio and approach to [match] those tastes.

Gin is an interesting example of that. The consumption of gin tends to be less spirit [within] a larger refreshing drink, compared to traditional gin cocktails that have heavy gin up front. People sitting on patios, they may be nursing a drink much longer, so a longer and more refreshing serving style becomes more relevant. So there’s adaptation in the way we present the products, the way they’re mixed, and again, if this trend is continuing, we need to make sure we have the right products and also ensure we can trade people up into better products.

With that in mind, how are you approaching the marketing strategy for Ungava? 

We find many consumers who describe themselves as non-gin drinkers, when they taste Ungava, they convert very quickly. One of the reasons is that we focus on a very specific recipe  Ungava, tonic and a very large wedge of grapefruit. That’s one of the most useful strategies. People love to drink cocktails  that’s a very strong trend  but not everybody has the capability or knowledge to create these great drinks at home. Having a simple recipe that creates a delicious drink is a great advantage. At the end of the day, everybody can ad tonic and a slide of grapefruit to their product.

We’ve found that the real key to success is allowing people to discover, so there’s a lot of social media and a lot of experiential events behind the brand allowing people to taste and discover the product. We’ve done a relatively small out-of-home campaign in Ontario this summer. But where you really see success is getting third-party endorsement, getting people to share their experience with the brand. We are accelerating that by getting more people to try and sample the product in events and experiential activity.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly email briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up for the newsletter here to receive the latest stories directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.