Brett happens

All wine, most of the time

The case of the missing Noilly Prat

with 21 comments

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 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!

Written by carswell

May 25, 2013 at 12:28

Posted in Commentary

Tagged with ,

21 Responses

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  1. Great article.
    If there was such a thing as The Rice Store that was the only place to buy rice and that stocked everything except black rice, simply because it doesn’t sell like white rice, you’d say that it was failing in its purpose as a purveyor of rices.
    Second, the fact that products like Noilly Prat and Pimm’s (which was available in the Q for a short period about 2–3 years ago) do not sell in large enough quantities belies Montreal’s claim as a large metropolitan area. Certainly, sales would suggest the palate isn’t metropolitan.
    Maybe we’re just damned to be provincial!


    May 26, 2013 at 12:10

    • Good analogy, Blake.

      One of the reasons some of these products don’t sell well is lack of awareness. For something like the quintessentially English Pimm’s, that’s probably due to cultural issues.

      For products like Noilly Prat, St-Germain and top bourbons, it probably has to do do with Quebercers being big wine and beer consumers but small spirits and cocktail drinkers. (Average annual wine consumption in litres: 22.6 in Quebec, 16.5 in the rest of Canada and 14.0 in Ontario. Average annual spirits consumption in litres: 4.1 in Quebec, 7.4 in the ROC and 7.7 in Ontario.) The lack of a spirits/cocktail culture can be seen in Montreal’s bar scene with its pitiful lack of expert mixologists.

      To some extent, it’s a chicken v. egg thing. The SAQ doesn’t carry fine spirits and cocktail essentials because demand for them is low. Demand for them is low because they aren’t available at the only local source for such products so people don’t know about them. Again, the only way out of this vicious cycle would be for the SAQ to allow some exceptions to its profit-above-all rule, to accept that while some products might not sell as well as it likes, serving the public well requires that it carry them.


      May 27, 2013 at 10:12

  2. How is it that a French province doesn’t even carry the French vermouth!! Ridiculous we have to go to the USA to get the best vermouth – the LCBO as the country’s largest importer of wine can not even find a profit opportunity or at least a happy customer opportunity by carrying 1 extra – very good – alcohol skew???


    September 1, 2013 at 23:08

    • We are from Quebec (Montreal) and our extended families are (were) totally converted to Noilly Prat for Dry martini. When it was gone in all quebec SAQs, we went to Ontario and bought a couple of cases. Now that Ontario also stopped selling it, we are out! Actually, just finished the last bottle tonight! Two questions: what would be the best equivalent around here? Anybody knows if Noilly Prat still sells anywhere in North America? I travel a lot for business, so I will look around to see if I can bring back some bottles in my suitcase… Thanks!


      September 21, 2013 at 17:55

      • Checked a few representative websites, Linda. It’s available at Astor Wines in Manhattan, MacArthur Beverages in D.C., the Montgomery County liquor stores in suburban D.C. (Maryland), Ball Square in Somerville/Boston and the Pennsylvania liquor stores. Unfortunately, none of the stores I checked in Plattsburgh and Burlington put their inventories online, but you could always email or call.

        The best replacement at the SAQ was the Dolan blanc but it’s not showing in the monopoly’s inventory anymore (don’t know if it too has been dropped or if it’s just out of stock). That leaves us with a choice between Martini, Stock and Cinzano. My next bottle will probably be the first but meh…

        A few Quebec agencies have begun offering artisanal vermouths through the private import channel, but you have to buy a case and they’re pricey (like $30 or $40 a bottle). Noilly Prat is now owned and distributed by Bacardi; if they offer it or any other product on a private import basis, they make no mention of it on their website. Will call them next week and inquire.


        September 21, 2013 at 18:54

        • Thanks! I am going to Salt Lake City this week, it might be a challenge… but I’ll have a look 🙂


          September 22, 2013 at 10:33

  3. I have just received an email from Hugo Touchette, regional director of Bacardi Canada Inc., and he says that Noilly Prat will be back on the shelves a few months from now.

    Looks like we’re finally coming out of this dry spell…

    Michel Hardy-Vallée

    September 30, 2013 at 09:48

    • YES!!! Great news!

      I was able to find 2 bottles in Salt Lake City last week and we savoured our classic Dry Martinis over the weekend… However it is “Extra Dry” instead of “Original Dry”, it is colorless instead of pale yellow as the “Original Dry” we had in Quebec before they stopped selling it.

      So by curiousity and a couple of Google, I found this web site which explains the differences: Fascinating! We prefer the “Extra Dry” version for dry martinis and I am pretty sure that is what we had here too a couple of years ago. I then went on the web site and I see that they aslo have a red and an amber version. Now I want to try that too… The story on how it is made is also fascinating.

      Now I wonder which one we will have back in Quebec? Until then, I’ll keep looking for it (original or extra!) when going down south…


      September 30, 2013 at 21:08

      • Good for you, Linda. And thanks for the links. I wasn’t aware the Extra Dry was being reintroduced.


        October 2, 2013 at 12:49

    • Thanks for the input, Michel. I hope you’re right. Back in July, the Globe and Mail’s Beppi Crosariol claimed Bacardi was pulling Noilly Prat from the Canadian market. (He also implied that wasn’t a big loss…) Maybe they’ve had a change of heart?


      October 2, 2013 at 12:44

      • Hopefully this is a change of heart, or perhaps customer’s satisfaction with the horrible taste of Martini vermouth. Between that and Stock, let’s just say that the choices are nonexistent.

        At any rate, since the email comes from an official source, it should be worth something.

        Michel Hardy-Vallée

        October 2, 2013 at 14:16

  4. From Michel on sept 30 2013: Looks like we’re finally coming out of this dry spell…
    Well we are into June 2014, and stack just got pulled as well. For dry there is now nothing but dish soap tasting Martin brand !


    June 13, 2014 at 16:14

  5. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    December 4, 2015 at 14:55

    • Well, I’ll be damned. Thanks for the heads-up, Michel!


      December 4, 2015 at 15:12

  6. Wonderful! How did you find out?

    Just placed an order for 6 bottles 🙂 I was able to get some bottles whenever I traveled down to the USA but that was a bit annoying having to check luggage at my return.

    Thanks for letting us know…


    December 4, 2015 at 22:55

    • Sheer luck: the other day, I saw Dolin Blanc at an SAQ and it wasn’t listed yet. So I’ve been searching “vermouth” every once in a while on the SAQ website.

      Michel Hardy-Vallée

      December 5, 2015 at 07:43


    You can now get it in a normal SAQ, just like the rest of the civilized world. Merry Christmas everyone!

    Michel Hardy-Vallée

    December 14, 2015 at 08:28

  8. Just checked on and it shows not available. It is gone again!!! What is going on !@#$% ???


    August 5, 2017 at 17:01

    • OK I just checked again. It is now back at Online ordering. Just placed an order!


      August 18, 2017 at 11:50

      • Thanks for the update, Linda. I suspect the inventory database/interface has a few bugs. On June 4, I checked for Noilly Prat and it showed zero availability in the province. A day or two later, the product was shown as available just about everywhere.

        Moral of this story: Don’t necessarily believe when it shows stockouts. When in doubt, call the SAQ’s customer service centre or ask an SAQ store employee to check for you — they have direct access to the corporate inventory database.


        August 18, 2017 at 12:09

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