The case of the missing Noilly Prat
Ask people to name the different types of vermouth and most will probably answer red and white. Actually, vermouths are divided into three main styles: Provençal, Savoie and Italian. (In fact, it’s even more complicated than that; see here for details.)
The first of these styles, the Provençal, is generally considered the most complex. And the last remaining representative of the style is Noilly Prat.
Straw-coloured Noilly Prat Original Dry is arguably the quintessential ingredient for a classic dry martini. Many martini recipes specify it by name while leaving the choice of gin up to the mixologist. As the New American Bartender’s Handbook says, “No martini should be made without a splash of this.” What’s more, Noilly Prat Original Dry is a key ingredient in several Provençal dishes, especially fish dishes. T. S. Eliot even named one of his cats after it. The lighter, more delicate Savoie vermouths can be delicious but they lack Noilly Prat’s heft. Italian dry vermouths tend to be sweeter, heavier and less refined. The bottom line: Noilly Prat is both an icon and an essential addition to any self-respecting liquor cabinet.
And it isn’t available in Quebec or Ontario.
That’s right. After looking for Noilly Prat at various SAQ outlets and coming up with bupkes, I checked SAQ.com. 0 results. How can this be, I wondered. It’s a product every liquor store in the universe should have. And the SAQ’s been selling it for ages. So I started asking around. An SAQ outlet manager finally give me the answer: it wasn’t selling well enough and has been dropped from the catalogue.
Shocking but at least we can get it in Ontario, I thought. So I went to the LCBO website and typed Noilly in the search box. There are a few bottles left in far-flung stores but the product info page is headed by a big red “PRODUCT DISCONTINUED” disclaimer.
What’s going on?
All the SAQ’s profits are remitted to its sole shareholder, the Quebec government, in the form on an annual dividend. For a while now, the SAQ has been strongly focused on growing that dividend. Look at the figures for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 fiscal years: $867.2 million, $910.5 million and $999.7 million. There are several ways the monopoly has been achieving these multimillion-dollar gains, most notably by increasing efficiencies and squeezing as much money out of consumers as possible. And one result of this is dropping products that don’t sell as well as it wants them to.
In other words, what the SAQ considers an “optimal product offer” (to quote the monopoly’s Procurement and Merchandising Policy) is stocking its shelves only with products that meet its sales volume requirements. And that isn’t necessarily what’s optimal for you, the consumer.
You can see the impact of this approach in the bottle sizes of dry vermouths. Contrary to what many people think, dry vermouth is quite fragile and can oxidize and lose its freshness soon after opening. That’s why opened bottles should be stored in the fridge, preferably under inert gas, and used up quickly. That’s why it’s best to buy the smallest possible bottle. The SAQ used to stock Noilly Prat in 375 ml bottles. But they dropped that format years ago, leaving only one-litre bottles. In fact, with one exception (the perennially out-of-stock Dolan), vermouth comes only in 1 or 1.5 litre bottles at the SAQ these days.
You can also see the policy’s impact in the monopoly’s failure to stock or regularly stock wines and spirits that wouldn’t be big sellers but that should be available to Quebec consumers because of their iconic or representative status: Punt e Mes (speaking of vermouths); akvavit; Shaoxing wine; Plymouth gin; Victoria gin; Macvin; marcs from the Jura, Alsace and elsewhere; Pimm’s; Izarra; St-Germain elderflower liqueur; crème de violette; a range of Lustau and other fine sherries; slivovitz; Txakoli, Lagrein; Refosco; Cesanese; top Austrian wines; Norton; any number of Canadian wines; excellent bourbons; wines from small name New World producers; and so on. What’s more, there’s a whole range of iconic products that the SAQ does stock but only in the most commercial, mediatized and predictable examples.
The failure to carry mixology staples (Noilly Prat, crème de violette, St-Germain, etc.) puts the lie to the SAQ’s Espace cocktail push, exposes that effort for what it really is: not the claimed responsiveness to consumer demand but a slick marketing campaign designed to up sales among new generation drinkers who aren’t particularly interested in wine.
Because the SAQ is the only game in town, it has a responsibility to carry products that should be available to every wine, spirits and cocktail lover, products that are representative of their region, that are icons or legends, that consumers in other large metropolitan areas with free markets (New York, Boston, San Francisco, etc.) have access to. And it has a responsibility to do so whether or not they are best sellers.
Bring back Noilly Prat!