Three tickets for a whisky. Not rye. It’s a downtown Toronto event, the currency is sample tickets, at a buck a piece. Seems reasonable. Besides, there’s a sign that has caught my eye.
It announces, “Sample Ontario Corn Whisky: Neat, On the rocks, Whisky sour cocktail.” In a way, it’s the kind of sign I expect to see at the Toronto Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, where agencies promote food companies, wineries and distilleries.
Except this isn’t a liquor agency doing the promoting. It’s the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO).
GFO communications co-ordinator Brianne Curtis greets visitors who wander into the booth. It’s a big booth with seats where attendees can stop, talk, sample, and hang out. Along with corn whisky, they have samples of oat cakes made with Ontario oats.
$35 gets you in the door of the 140,000-square-foot event. There is no dress code for the show, though the website suggests anything from smart casual to city chic to quite dressy.
The crowd tonight is mixed, but there are lots of gleaming shoes and pressed suits, and most attendees wield a wineglass in one hand, sometimes skillfully sometimes tentatively navigating the crowd with the glass held out front to avoid spillage.
At the end of the aisle with the GFO booth is a chef presentation. A few rows over is a figure skater in a frilly gown performing on fake ice.
There’s wine, hard cider, beer, and booze from all over the world. And there are mixologists with all sorts of mixing tips. One booth has olives to taste. Another charcuterie. A couple of aisles over, the restaurant chain Moxies is serving tasters.
The din in the background is a mix of people talking, live bluesy music, and amplified voices giving cooking demos.
GFO at the show
I check in with GFO after the show to learn more. “This year was our fourth year that we’ve attended the show,” Curtis explains. She says that some people are surprised when they come to the booth and realize it’s the Grain Farmers of Ontario, but when they hear about the connection of grain farmers to the whisky and oat cakes, they say, “Oh, that makes sense.” She tells them that the whisky is made from Ontario grains grown within 250 km of a distillery in Collingwood, Ont.
That consumer awareness — that “Oh, that makes sense” — is the goal.
“The whisky and the whisky sours were a big hit,” says Curtis. A fun drink at this event is likely to be a hit, meaning a fun drink opens the door to tell the story of the whisky — and of the grain behind it.
The oat cakes are made an hour away at a bakery in Guelph, Ont., with Ontario oats, she says. “We were able to tell the story of local food made from local farmers.”
Victoria Berry, GFO manager of communications says shows focused on food and celebrating food are a good fit for GFO. “It’s a great opportunity for us to remind people that their food is grown very well here,” she says. It allows consumers to connect their food to the farm and the way it’s grown.
Farm outreach. Ontario corn. Whisky sours. Three tickets.
How to meet consumers
Sampling whisky at a Toronto food and wine show is part of the GFO’s larger Good in Every Grain campaign which launched in 2014. It is an umbrella campaign for GFO’s consumer-focused initiatives.
The GFO Good in Every Grain campaign has a number of consumer touchpoints. “We go all over the place,” explains Victoria Berry, manager of communications at GFO. “We have to marry the event portion, and the social portion, and the website, and different other campaigns that we might be running,” she says.
For example, GFO has an interactive trailer that it sets up at fairs. There are larger displays at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, the International Plowing Match, and the Canadian National Exhibition.
Another urban, non-farm event that GFO attends is the Honda Indy. The first year, recalls GFO communications co-ordinator Brianne Curtis, people stopped to take a double take, saying, “Grain farmers?” But once she explained that grain corn is used in ethanol, which is used in fuel, people made the connection.
The Honda Indy is an opportunity to connect with consumers who would not otherwise be thinking of corn when they think of fuel. They’ve even taken the campaign to the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada to talk about the ethanol connection.
Berry points out that sometimes it’s effective to use people from outside the farm industry to share information. For example, GFO works with nutritionists and dieticians for some initiatives, while the current Train with Grains campaign is working with the Ottawa Senators.
Some conversations are more challenging than the story of whisky. The Good in Every Grain website includes topics such as GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, pollinators, and sprays. Curtis says that these are topics where there can be strong opinions. While opening a dialogue doesn’t mean it’s possible to change the mind of someone who is passionate, when people are truly curious, there is an opportunity to share the farmer viewpoint. Even if there is a difference of opinion, she says, it’s often possible to end on a positive note and talk about quality.
Curtis talks about putting a face to an industry. As part of the campaign, the GFO website showcased a different farmer each week, with photos, information about the farm, and insights to help non-farmers relate to farmers. “We connect them to the food, and then connect that food back to the farm,” says Curtis. “Here are your farmers, growing food on your behalf.”