Caribbean Spirits Mean Business

On the face of it, an island-hopping jaunt to the southeast Caribbean seas in search of the region’s finest rums may seem like a shoe-in for TFO Canada Mission of the Year, any year. The taste-testing certainly doesn’t hurt, nor the balmy winds. But throw in a short work week, tightly scheduled with meetings with top local producers, distillery tours and an interactive forum and showcase of the best in rum and food from the region, and it was apparent that TFO Canada’s 2010 Rum Buyer Mission to the Caribbean meant business; business that has now, just over a year later, started to show some very positive results.

The spark for this project came in late 2009 with the unveiling of TFO Canada’s Responsive Initiative (TRI), a DFATD-funded programme that applies TFO Canada’s technical assistance to support Canadian Market Access activities in priority countries and regions. Eager to inaugurate TRI with an innovative project, TFO Canada turned to our friends at the High Commission of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), a priority designated region. True to form and led by First Secretary Olaf Fontenelle, the High Commission submitted a stellar proposal for the mission, highlighting the surprising fact that none of the proposed participant suppliers had sold into the Canadian market previously. Upon approval, TFO Canada pulled in Lead Associate Marc Germain and, together with the OECS, formulated a mission action plan that included four major provincial buyers – Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Québec and British Columbia – visiting two islands and meeting with distillers from several other OECS islands as well.

The mission commenced with a one day visit to Grenada where the buyers visited a large-scale distillery, a bottling operation and a medium-sized blender. Next, on to St. Lucia where they were warmly hosted for three busy days, participating the first day along with St. Lucian and regional distillers (including from Grenada, St. Kitts, and Dominica) in a workshop/showcase forum. After a welcoming reception, the buyers opened the event by presenting information and insights regarding their respective import markets: competition, regulations, how to successfully penetrate, and so on. The suppliers and hosts then put forth a splendid showcase and tasting which enabled the buyers to get to know the products and companies and develop direct business relationships with each. Individual one-on-one meetings, held during the second day, augmented those introductions and a full tour of St. Lucia Distilleries on the final day concluded the event.

Directly following the mission, buyers expressed very positive interest in the companies and products, especially in the specialty or niche end of the market. The region’s product history and quality as well as brand differentiation were deemed very strong and they indicated how the business environment seemed very open-minded, with representatives from each supplying company very receptive to constructive criticism and exhibiting singular passion for their products.

Flash forward to one year later and we are seeing the fruits borne of this activity: the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ), the government-regulated liquor retailer for the province of Québec, is officially carrying two of the products sourced during that mission. St. Lucia Distillery’s “Element Eight Platinum” and “Gold” rums, so-named for the key elements of rum-making: cane, water, fermentation, distillation, tropical aging, blending and filtration, were both featured in the Summer edition of SAQ’s quarterly magazine, Cellier.

Award winning rums from St. Lucia are now available in Québec thanks to the efforts of all involved in this activity!