Distilling the Success of Strathcona Spirits, the Smallest Distillery in North America
Had it not been for a change in the Canadian laws, Strathcona Spirits' journey to success might never have happened. Due to strict post-Prohibition laws, small-scale distilling was essentially illegal in the province of Alberta, Canada, until 2013. Today, Strathcona Spirits has the dual honor of being Edmonton’s first—and oldest—distillery and North America’s smallest distillery, and is part of a modern-day revival in the Albertan craft alcohol industry.
Co-founded by Andrea Shubert and Adam Smith, the distillery distinguishes itself with a selection of finely crafted, small-batch spirits made using local ingredients and traditional methods. Think gin infused with locally-foraged sea buckthorn berries and whisky finished in aromatic Oloroso sherry casks. Beautiful product design and branding with striking illustrations add to its stand-out appeal.
By integrating its history-making brick-and-mortar business with a strong web presence Strathcona Spirits has also crafted a recipe for eCommerce success.
In July 2021, sales at Strathcona Spirits grew 29% month over month.
For Strathcona, selling a great product is just the tip of the iceberg. The distillery, whose ethos is “everything is permitted,” centers its core company values around creativity, community, inclusivity, and a willingness to be different.
We talked to distillery co-founder Andrea Shubert about Strathcona’s journey from a brick-and-mortar business serving the local community to a successful eCommerce business shipping to customers across Canada and the United States.
Read our interview to hear how Strathcona Spirits started their eCommerce website and grew the online side of their game-changing distillery business.
How did Strathcona Spirits start?
The distillery launched in 2016 and came about in an unusual way. I'm the co-founder of Strathcona distillery, along with my partner, Adam Smith. Adam used to run a small music venue in Edmonton, Alberta and it reached the point where there were restrictions on the small space he was in and the city would no longer allow him to hold shows there. At the same time, he’d been working as a sales rep for a brewery and had a growing interest in distillation. Prior to 2013, it was illegal to run a small distillery in Alberta—distillers had to produce at least 2,500 hectolitres of alcohol a year. The industry was lobbied by the big players. In 2013, the government finally recognized that this was unfair. Once that law changed, the stars basically aligned, allowing Adam to start pursuing his distillery dream. I joined him on the marketing and communications side, creating the website and building the brand. Our first spirit bottle hit store shelves in December 2016.
As Edmonton’s first distillery, we had a fantastic response from the local community. Close to five years later we’re now in over 300 stores across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Japan. We always thought it was a cool idea and a fun thing to do, but seeing other people's excitement and passion for our quality-made spirits has been the best indicator.
I built our website in less than a week. Prior to Strathcona Spirits, I worked in eCommerce and online communications, so I knew what I wanted. I didn’t want an eCommerce site that was clunky and difficult to update, where the smallest change required a developer. This was a lean startup so we wanted to have a website that we could easily update ourselves, or delegate to an employee to update, in a really simple and time-efficient way. So that's how I decided on Wix.
Initially, it was a simple interface, just a place for people to find out about the distillery and increase our SEO, so that if people were googling Strathcona Spirits, our website would come up first, but eventually, we built out our eCommerce section.
Over the years the business shifted. Originally we were just selling directly to retailers, restaurants, and liquor stores, but now it's grown from business to customer, which has been fantastic, and with that, we've definitely put an emphasis on the website. Our brick-and-mortar bottle shop has grown and we now offer weekly tours and tastings at the distillery.
Tell us about the distilling process and your website’s best-selling products.
Our best-selling products are by far our spirits. Badland Seaberry Gin, a London-dry style gin with local seabuckthorn and juniper from the Alberta Badlands is a top seller and definitely our cult-classic favorite. Our one-time limited releases, like our whisky, also sell out fast. In Canada, “whisky” needs to age for 3 years for it to be deemed as such, so these small-batch releases tend to go super quick. We just released our latest small-batch, Oloroso Dreamland Whisky.
To produce these spirits we usually like to start with an interesting ingredient, barrel, or concept and go from there. These spirits can take from months to years to decades to produce, so the actual process requires constant play, pruning, and attention to detail each step of the way.
One commitment we have to our customers is to share our craft, so we’re transparent about our ingredients and our aging processes. Distillation and barrel aging is exciting for us, so we love to talk about it as much as possible with other spirit enthusiasts out there.
We're lucky that there's a genuine loyalty toward small businesses in Canada. I think our website’s customer return rate reflects the loyalty of the local food and drink movement. Customers recognize that it's a quality product being created and enjoy it.
How did the pandemic affect your business?
In April 2020, we shut down our physical brick-and-mortar bottle shop for the safety of our staff and the community. Our production space and our distillery are so small, it was safer to keep customers out of the space so that we could continue producing.
At the end of April 2020, we started producing hand sanitizer. Initially, it was as a response to help the community, as there were severe shortages across Canada, but it grew into a new sector of our business, reaching a completely different customer who was pleased with what we’d created—a simple sanitizer made with denatured food grade alcohol and very few ingredients.
With our website, there was a huge increase in traffic. At the Wix checkout, we offer curbside pickup, which makes it easy for people to order online and pick it up at the distillery. As a busy mom and business owner, I've always been a real lover of curbside pickup, even prior to the pandemic. Wix allowed for that and I really appreciated it.
Right now everything is opening up in Canada, so we're focusing on bringing people back into our space with distillery tours and tastings. 99.9% of the tours are booked on our website. Keeping it all online lessens the chance for error. It’s so great to have our customers back into our space, to show them what we’ve been up to. Having a quick chat and hearing their feedback is indispensable.
What tools do you use to promote your business?
Our primary focus has always been social media—we use Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. The main thing for us, on social media, our website, and even the experience in the shop, is to be as inclusive as possible. Keeping the language of our spirits as simple as we can. Being transparent with our barrel routine and how things are aged. Using terms that are unnecessary, or trying to overcomplicate things, excludes people, and we would never want to do that. Our spirits are for everyone.
On social, typically I'll do some teaser posts, and then we'll do an email marketing campaign. Any time we do a new release we first send out a teaser email and then follow up with an email saying our new whisky is now available, here's a link to purchase it. I like to send out that email campaign about an hour before we actually post about it on social media so that customers who’ve asked us to let them know when a certain release is coming have a chance to order it as some of our smaller batch releases have sold out in just a few days.
SEO is a huge one for us. Being able to easily edit and develop our SEO is super helpful. Beyond that, when it comes to paid advertising, we use Google AdWords and some sponsored posts on Facebook.
Wix stores that connect SEO tools experience, on average, a 21% increase in traffic.
What Wix integrations make your work easier?
Some of our releases sell out pretty fast so it's important to be able to keep a close eye on our inventory. To avoid costly errors, we’ve integrated our inventories between our bottle shop and the website using SKUIQ. Prior to using this app, it was difficult to keep track of the two separate inventories, so being able to merge those two into one has been a huge time saver for us. It lessens any headaches in terms of over or underselling certain products, which can be frustrating for the customer.
ShipStation, especially during peak season, is great for automating our shipping, saving us hours and hours of time. Plus, it lessens the chance of human error because it's automating the correct address into the shipping label along with weight and box dimensions.
Wix stores that use shipping label services reduce time to fulfill by 22% and have 113% higher sales revenue on average.
My biggest goal for building our website was to make it as automated as possible for the customer and to avoid creating any barriers that would stop a sales transaction from occurring. Recently we were able to add Gifted to our website as a streamlined way for customers to purchase and use their gift cards in the bottle shop and online in real time. This will definitely be useful as we head into Christmas 2021 and beyond.
On average Wix stores’ customers spent 32% more than the value of their gift card in 2021.
I think it’s a nice touch to offer free shipping if you can. The customer doesn’t have to come directly to your website to purchase, but they have chosen to and there are huge benefits to this. Offering free shipping over $99 encourages people to hit that target price, but I also try to keep shipping costs for smaller orders as low as possible.
Strathcona’s Average Order Value (AOV) grew by 26% YoY in 2021.
What is your approach to the holiday season?
Christmas is probably one of our busiest seasons. We're turning five this year, and we're definitely getting smarter. In the early years, we would start preparing for Christmas in September or October. Now, we start preparing for it on January 1st, which sounds ludicrous but when you're developing products, it takes a long time to sort out the finer details like design and printing.
In December 2020, Strathcona’s sales grew by 207% compared to the previous month.
We’re careful about the products we release. We only do a handful of releases a year. Sometimes they're one-time small-batch releases. Sometimes it's an ongoing product. At the beginning of the year we sit down, look at the calendar and say “okay, yeah, let's shoot for this here around this date, let’s do this for Christmas,” and we go from there. Christmas is always on our mind in terms of production and just making sure that we're well-stocked. It's literally a 365-day approach to Christmas.
Tell us about branching into Strathcona Spirits merchandise.
As a previous music venue space, our distillery really loves the arts. We have interesting artwork on our products, so we wanted to take some of that artwork and put it on a t-shirt or a tote bag, and yes, even on a hockey puck as we both play hockey. It’s fun. It’s also a nice add-on purchase for someone ordering something online or coming into the shop for a tour and tasting.
What are Strathcona’s plans for the future?
For this year, we’ll continue to do a couple more interesting limited small-batch releases, including another upcoming whisky. We also have a pretty big release coming later this fall that we’ve been working on for some time and we couldn’t be more excited about the flavor and concept. It’s something that has been requested about 1,000 times, so we expect there will be a lot of buzz around it.
Long term for the distillery I think our main focus is to stick to our core values: using local ingredients, thinking thoughtfully about each product we release, why we want to release it and why it's interesting, and taking the time to learn the history of it so that we can share this with our customers.
Do you have any advice for business owners?
Last year, when we released our absinthe—made using real Alberta wormwood—we knew that due to past prohibition laws and the notorious history absinthe has, we’d have many customers asking us: “Is this even allowed?”
So we added, “Everything is Permitted” on the bottle. In many ways, this has been our mantra since the day we considered starting and running a distillery.
Don’t start with a “no.”
We didn’t think the distillery was going to happen because of all the red tape involved, but we kept applying for permits to do this or that. When they said yes, we thought: great, let’s move on to the next thing.
The idea that everything is permitted is the best place to start from and just go from there.
And when you get a no, which we definitely have a few times over the last five years, we typically dust ourselves off and continue on until we find our yes.
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Marketing Writer, Wix eCommerce
Geraldine is a marketing writer for Wix eCommerce. She uses her broad experience in journalism, publishing, public relations and marketing to create compelling content and loves hearing user success stories.