Elliot Porozni

Highlander Wine & Spirits

Looking for an extraordinary Brunello di Montalcino to tuck away in the cellar? An intriguing craft brew for taco Tuesday? A wide-ranging selection of vino for your restaurant’s by-the-glass list? Calgary’s Highlander Wine & Spirits has got you covered.

“People love us because we’re approachable,” says managing director Elliot Porozni. “At every price point we over-deliver.”

HighlanderStore-1That’s especially true for the retailer’s newest location on Seton Crescent, the fourth in the chain: It’s a 6,100-square-foot store with 20-foot-high ceilings, two levels of glass windows, giant coolers for beer, and wide aisles that encourage customers to browse. “That’s the future of all Highlanders,” Elliot says. “It will be the blueprint for all our locations.”

It’s also a long way from the retailer’s origins. These days Highlander may specialize in exquisite wines and spirits, but it began by selling off-sales in a legendary motor inn on the Trans-Canada Highway in northwest Calgary.

When the 88-room Highlander Hotel opened in 1961, it was a big enough deal that the provincial treasurer and some of Alberta’s most famous families showed up for the ribbon cutting. (The moniker “Highlander” was a nod to Calgary, which was named for a town on Scotland’s Isle of Mull.) Its Black Angus dining room and Clansman Mixed Beverage Room soon became popular hangouts, and off-sales were a steady revenue generator. Then, in 1996, not long after Alberta privatized its liquor stores, Highlander opened its retail store, which many considered a best-kept secret source for exceptional wines. The hotel was eventually demolished to make way for a Home Depot, but the Highlander legend lives on in its retail stores.

As the store evolved from selling six-packs of beer to cases of premium wines, the branding and merchandising changed to reflect a more sophisticated product and the market that was buying it. The company began selling to restaurants and hotels. It became the first Alberta liquor retailer to offer an in-house rewards program. And along the way, the stores became bigger – they now average about 4,000 sq. ft. – and the stock more varied, with some 4,000 skus in their database, most of it wine.

“California and Italy are our biggest categories by far and that’s true at all our locations, even our restaurant business,” Elliot says.  Additionally, each store’s stock is customized to fit the community it’s in. “Marda Loop might have 40 Brunello labels, and another store might not have as much.”

Highlander has also carved out a niche with craft beers and artisanal spirits, especially those produced in Alberta. “We’re really taking advantage of the artisanal movement here,” Elliot says. “I don’t think people realize how many distilleries there are in and around Calgary. We try to support them all.”

Highlander’s biggest change has come about in the type of service it offers. When the first store opened, it didn’t have a single dedicated wine expert on staff. Now the company employs 15 sommeliers, 12 of them with at least advanced Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) certification as well as a wine educator who provides staff with regular training.

“We do seminars and tastings that are regional and product specific,” says Elliot, who himself has earned his WSET diploma. When a customer glances at a wine label, there is always someone on hand with the knowledge and expertise to help him out. That’s especially important at the new Seton Crescent store, which was designed for customers to linger and learn (and, of course, buy). Among other things, it features a critics’ corner highlighting favourites from international experts, including an area for wines that have earned 90-plus points; at the same time, it also offers a top value section.

“We try to niche out the areas to draw attention to new or acclaimed products,” Elliot explains. “People spend more time in the store looking at labels. That’s really important to me, especially with so many educated staff.”

The Seton Crescent location just opened in winter 2015; Highlander’s fifth store is scheduled to open next year around the same time. “We’ve been opening one store every year or 18 months,” Elliot describes. However, they’re not opening stores just anywhere. “The location is really, really crucial. We’re really selective in where we go. We just don’t want to be another liquor store. We want to add value.”

Most importantly, he says, Highlander offers a vast selection and educated service that is meant to be helpful, not intimidating. “It’s not snobby. It’s not pretentious,” he says. “There might be 40 Brunellos at the Marda Loop store, but there are also 150 options under $15.” And, above all, he states, “It’s very calm and approachable.”