source Strathcona Spirits: The Smallest Distillery in North America, Distilling the Success
Strathcona spirits might not have been able to achieve their success if it weren’t for the Canadian laws being changed. Small-scale distilling was illegal in Alberta, Canada, due to strict post-Prohibition laws. Strathcona Spirits, Edmonton’s oldest and smallest distillery and a victim of the strict post-Prohibition laws, is now part of the revival of the Albertan craft alcohol sector.
Adam Smith and Andrea Shubert co-founded the distillery. They offer a range of small-batch, finely-crafted spirits that are made with traditional ingredients. Think of gin with sea buckthorn berries from local sources and whisky aged in Oloroso sherry barrels. Its standout appeal is enhanced by its striking branding and product design.
Strathcona Spirits is a successful eCommerce company that has merged its brick-and-mortar heritage with a strong online presence.
Strathcona Spirits sales grew by 29% month-over-month in July 2021
Strathcona believes that selling great products is only the tip of an iceberg. The company’s core values are creativity, community and inclusion.
Andrea Shubert, co-founder of Strathcona Distillery, spoke to us about Strathcona’s transformation from a local brick-and-mortar company to an online business that ships to customers all over Canada and the United States.
Watch our interview to learn how Strathcona spirits started their online shop and grew their eCommerce side of the game-changing distillery.
When did Strathcona Spirits begin?
In 2016, the distillery was launched. It came about in a very unusual manner. Together with Adam Smith, I am the co-founders of Strathcona distillery. Adam was the owner of a small Edmonton music venue. The city had restrictions and he couldn’t hold shows in the space. He was also a sales rep at a brewery, and began to take an interest in distillation. It was illegal in Alberta to operate a small distillery. Distillers had to produce at most 2,500 hectolitres per year. The big players lobbied for the industry. 2013 was the year that the government realized this was unfair. Adam was able to pursue his dream of starting a distillery when the law was changed. I was his marketing and communications partner, helping to create the website and build the brand. In December 2016, our first spirit bottle was on sale in stores.
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We were Edmonton’s first distillery. The community was enthusiastic about our efforts. We are now available in more than 300 retail stores in Japan, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Canada five years ago. It was always something we thought was cool and fun. But, seeing people’s enthusiasm and passion for our spirits has been the best indicator.
Our website was built in less than one week. Before Strathcona Spirits I had worked in eCommerce and online communication. I knew exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want an outdated eCommerce website that was difficult to use and required a developer for every change. We were a small startup, so we needed a website we could update ourselves or allow employees to do it. That’s how I came up with Wix.
It was initially a simple interface. We wanted people to learn about Strathcona Spirits and increase their SEO. However, eventually we added an eCommerce section.
The business has changed over the years. We started out selling liquor stores, restaurants and retailers directly. But, the business has grown tremendously and we now sell to customers. We now offer weekly tours to the distillery and tastings at our brick-and-mortar store.
Tell us all about the distillation process and your best-selling products.
Our spirits are our best-selling product. Badland Seaberry Gin is our top-selling product. It’s a London-dry style gin made with seabuckthorn from the Alberta Badlands. Like our whisky, our limited editions sell quickly. Whisky must be aged for three years in Canada before it can be considered “whisky”. Small-batch releases are very popular. Our latest small-batch release, Oloroso Dreamland Whisky, has just been released.
These spirits are usually made with interesting ingredients, barrels, or concepts. Then we start to make them. It can take months, years, or even decades to make these spirits. This is why it is important to play, prune, and pay attention to every step.
We have a commitment to our customers to share our craft. This means we are open about our ingredients as well as our aging process. We find barrel aging and distillation exciting, so we enjoy sharing our knowledge with spirit enthusiasts.
We are fortunate to have small businesses that care about Canada. Our website’s high customer retention rate is a reflection of the loyalty to local food and drink movements. It’s a high quality product that customers love and recognize.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
We closed our brick-and-mortar bottle shop in April 2020 for the safety and well-being of our employees and the community. Because our production space and distillery are small, it was easier to keep customers away so we could continue producing.
We began producing hand sanitizer at the end of April 2020. It started out as a way to help the community as there was severe shortages in Canada. But it quickly grew into a new segment of our business and reached a completely different customer. The simple, denatured food-grade alcohol-based sanitizer was very popular.
Our website saw a significant increase in traffic. Wix offers curbside pickup. This makes it simple for customers to place orders online and pick up their products at the distillery. I have always loved curbside pickup as a business owner and mom. Wix made it possible, and I truly appreciated it.
Everything is opening up right now in Canada. We’re working to bring people back into our space through distillery tours, tastings, and other activities. Our website is used to book 99.9% of our tours. The possibility of error is reduced by booking everything online. It is so wonderful to welcome our customers back to our space to share what we have been up to. It’s great to have a quick chat with our customers and hear their feedback.
What tools are you using to promote your business’s success?
Social media has been our primary focus. We use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Our main goal, whether it’s on social media or our website, is to be inclusive. We try to keep the spirits’ language as simple as possible. Transparency in how barrels are aged and the process of getting them there. We don’t want to exclude anyone by using terms we don’t need or complicating things. Our spirits are open to all.
I will usually post teaser posts on social media, then we’ll run an email marketing campaign. We send out teaser emails to announce new releases. Then we follow up with an email stating that our whisky is now available and a link to buy it. Because some of our smaller batches have sold out quickly, I send the email campaign an hour before posting about it on social media.
SEO is an important topic for us. It is extremely helpful to be able edit and improve our SEO. We also use Google AdWords for paid advertising and some sponsored posts on Facebook.
Wix stores connecting SEO tools experience an average 21% increase in traffic.
How Wix integrations can make your job easier?
It’s not uncommon for our releases to sell out quickly so it is important to keep an eye on your inventory. We have integrated our inventory between the bottle shop and our website using KUIQ to avoid costly mistakes. It was hard to keep track prior to this app. This app reduces the frustration of customers having to oversell or undersell certain products.
ShipStation is a great tool for automating shipping. It’s especially useful during peak season. It reduces human error by automatically entering the correct address on the shipping label, along with the weight and dimensions of the box.
Wix stores using shipping label services have an average of 113% higher sales revenues and a 22% shorter time to fulfill orders.
When building our website, my main goal was to make it as easy as possible for customers and avoid any obstacles that could prevent a sale transaction from happening. We recently added Gifted functionality to our website. This allows customers to buy and use gift cards online and in-store in a simple way. This will be very useful as we move into Christmas 2021.
In 2021, Wix customers spent on average 32% more than what their gift cards were worth.
It’s nice to offer free shipping, if possible. Although the customer does not have to visit your site to make a purchase, they can choose to do so. There are many benefits to this. People will be more likely to buy if they get free shipping if their order is over $99, but I try to keep shipping costs low for smaller orders.
Strathcona’s average order value (AOV), grew 26% YoY in 2020.
How do you approach the holiday season?
Christmas is one of the busiest seasons for us. This year marks five years since we turned five. We are definitely becoming smarter. In the beginning, Christmas preparations would have been made in October or September. Although it sounds absurd, we now start planning for Christmas on January 1.
Strathcona’s December 2020 sales increased by 207% over the previous month.
We are very careful with the products that we release. We do only a few releases per year. Sometimes, they are one-off small-batch releases. Sometimes, it’s an ongoing product. We start the year by looking at the calendar. Then we move on to the next year. We keep Christmas in mind, both in terms of production and stocking. It’s a 365-day Christmas.
Let us know about your interest in Strathcona Spirits merchandise.
Our distillery is a former music venue and loves the arts. We have some interesting artwork on our products so we decided to put it on a tee shirt or tote bag and yes, even a hockey puck. It’s fun. It can also be used as an add-on purchase if you order something online, or come into the shop to tour and taste.
What are Strathcona’s future plans?
We’ll continue to make a few more limited-batch whiskies this year. We have another big release planned for later in the fall, which we have been working on for a while and are very excited about its concept and flavor. We expect there to be lots of buzz about it as it has been requested over 1,000 times.
For the long-term, I believe our main focus should be to use local ingredients and think carefully about each product that we release. Why we want it to be released and why it is interesting. We also need to take the time to understand the history so we can share it with our customers.
Any advice for business owners?
We released our absinthe last year using real Alberta wormwood. We knew that because of past prohibition laws, and the notorious history absinthe had, many people would ask us “Is it even allowed?”
We added “Everything is Permitted” to the bottle. This has been our mantra in many ways since the beginning of our journey to start and run a distillery.
Do not start with a “no.”
We weren’t sure the distillery would happen due to all the red tape involved. But we kept applying to permits for this and that. We were thrilled when they said yes and moved on to the next step.
It is best to accept everything and then go from there.
We often get a no and we continue to work until we find our yes.