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Creating Opportunities to Connect, Network, and Advocate: The Edmonton Cocktail Week Distillers' Symposium

Back in September of 2023, I had just become the executive director of the Alberta Craft Distillers Association. I was on a steep learning curve about distilling, the industry, the challenges faced by producers, and the opportunities that existed in Alberta, Canada, and beyond. I was approached by Faaiza Ramji, the co-founder of Field Notes, who wanted to organize some kind of event to elevate locally made spirits, cocktail culture, and the retailers and distillers. This conversation planted the seeds for the first Edmonton Cocktail Week.

Over the next few months, we worked together with others to develop a plan. We came up with restaurant and bar activations, retailer activations, and a cocktail competition. What we also wanted to do was create some kind of gathering that was specifically for the industry to come together, to network, to hear ideas, and to engage directly with business and political leaders. This idea evolved into the Distillers' Symposium on March 7th, 2024, and thanks to financial support from AGLC, Edmonton Global, and MNP, we were able to host it at no cost to the distillers.

We didn't know what to expect, but the final product exceeded our expectations. With more than 40 participants at the Symposium, and more than 100 people in attendance for the Distillers Reception after the Symposium, organizers, stakeholders, and distillers put a spotlight on this incredible homegrown sector that is using Alberta's amazing grains to create world-class spirits. Below is a summary of some key takeaways from the day:

Strategic Opportunities & Challenges to Success

The full day included some strategic planning discussions, panels on export development from Edmonton Global, a "State of the Union" from AGLC on Alberta's liquor industry, a panel discussion with Municipal Affairs on fire and safety codes, and a business optimization presentation from MNP. During the Municipal Affairs panel, it was announced that they would be providing ACDA with a $75,000 grant to conduct a review of codes and make recommendations on revisions, which is a huge win for the Association.

Several themes emerged during the day. The highlights are below:

  1. Industry Strengths and Opportunities:

  • Alberta's rich resources (barley, water) and entrepreneurial spirit create premium craft products.

  • Agricultural foundation and diverse grain production offer economic opportunities.

  • Economic diversification and value-added manufacturing are advantageous.

  • Leveraging Alberta connections and trade missions for marketing and expansion.

  1. Challenges and Obstacles:

  • Slow government processes and changes in regulations.

  • Interprovincial trade barriers and export issues.

  • Mixed messaging and regulations from AGLC, impacting business operations.

  • Lack of clarity and consistency in rules and enforcement across provinces.

  1. Advocacy and Government Relations:

  • Establishing ACDA as a voice in front of government.

  • Seeking clearer communication channels and more direct engagement.

  • Pushing for policies favoring Alberta distillers and addressing industry concerns.

  • Highlighting the economic impact of the distilling industry to gain government support.

  1. Collaboration and Unity:

  • Strength in collaboration among distillers despite competition.

  • Amplifying influence through a unified voice and organized efforts.

  • Preserving ACDA's collaborative environment for continued success.

  1. External Threats and Competition:

  • Threats from large spirit producers aiming to stifle small craft industry growth.

  • Pushing back against lobbying efforts and baseless complaints from multinationals.

  • Advocating for fair treatment and prioritization of Alberta products by government agencies.

  1. Financial and Resource Management:

  • Need for financial analysis to guide resource allocation and investment decisions.

  • Exploring avenues for accessing funds and resources from other sectors and organizations.

  • Highlighting the economic contributions of the distilling industry to attract support and investment.

  1. Operational Efficiency and Regulatory Issues:

  • Addressing inconsistencies and inefficiencies in AGLC regulations and enforcement.

  • Advocating for streamlined processes and quicker response times for pricing changes and product registration.

  • Seeking clarity and definition in industry standards and regulations for smoother operations.

  1. Long-term Planning and Strategic Vision:

  • Balancing short-term wins with moderate to longer-term planning.

  • Advocating for consideration of long-term growth and sustainability in government policies.

  • Exploring ways to reduce dependency on AGLC and enhance collaboration with other government sectors.

Minister Nally's Remarks

At the Alberta Craft Distillers Reception, following the Symposium, Hon. Dale Nally, Minister of Service Alberta and Red Tape Reduction made remarks where he touched on several areas of interest to ACDA. He talked about a number of changes and adjustments that AGLC has made to reduce red tape, while also acknowledging there is still work to do there to improve client facing interactions.

He discussed the situation with direct-to-consumer wine sales from B.C. wineries to Alberta addresses. While the reason for taking action is related to the collection of markup - B.C. wineries selling DTC are circumventing Alberta's liquor taxes - there is also an opportunity to use the issue for a discussion on B.C. market access for Alberta products. The view of ACDA is that the right approach is not to prevent others from doing business, but to enable our members to do more business. Our input has been for the Minister to use negotiations on the issue with his B.C. counterparts to help create opportunity for Alberta producers in the B.C. market. The question of equitable market access across the country is a key issue for ACDA.

The Minister also raised the concept of an Alberta Whisky Act. He didn't have many details on what this might look like, but that's because he wants Alberta's distillers to work with the Government of Alberta to co-create the legislation. This is a great opportunity for ACDA and distillers to work directly with Alberta on a positive, collaborative project that can set the stage for marketing, export development, incentives, and more.

Finally, the issue of the current markup framework was raised. The Minister publicly acknowledged that the current state has found the sweet spot yet in terms of revenue for the government and leaving more money in the pockets of Alberta's small and craft distillers. His public recognition of this fact in a room of industry stakeholders is a significant development. While every craft distiller in Alberta is paying keen attention to the markup issue, and generally there is disappointment with how slowly the process moves, the public acknowledgment signals a desire to work together and get the framework right. ACDA is continuing to push the Minister's Office on setting a process and a timeline for recommendations on changes.

It Was A Good Week For Distillers

All in all, Edmonton Cocktail Week and the Distillers' Symposium were huge wins for Alberta's craft distillers. The industry got media attention, we built public awareness of homegrown products, and we brought industry leaders together to start co-creating a plan moving forward. We can build on this success in future years, and we have demonstrated the value of supporting this homegrown industry.

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