Grant Olson & Megan CarsonThe Strath Ale, Wine & Spirits Merchants
The Strath is, quite simply, unique in BC. Grant Olson describes his family’s Victoria property as “a beverage-oriented hotel” and laughs a little when he says, “I think we were a little bit crazy to keep pouring dollars into creating and growing this entertainment complex.”
The Strathcona Hotel is a sprawling historic property that covers the east side of the 900 block of Douglas Street. Known as “Victoria’s Entertainment Centre,” it boasts several bars as well as the 72-guestroom hotel and the Strath Ale, Wine & Spirits Merchants liquor store. It opened in 1913, originally as an office building called the Empress Block, which was expropriated for an officers barracks during the First World War, then reborn as the Strathcona Hotel when the war ended.
In 1946, Olson’s grandfather Barney Olson bought it for something to do after he’d sold his bus company, Trans Canada Coach Lines, to Greyhound. The hotel had fallen on hard times and was badly in need of what would become the first of many renovations. His sons, Keith and John, started working in the hotel and slowly the family started transforming it into a downtown Victoria landmark.
On July 1, 1954, the Olson’s made BC history when they opened The Strathcona Room. The 32-seat space where Big Bad John’s hillbilly bar is now located was British Columbia’s first cocktail lounge; the first drink ordered was allegedly a martini. Although Prohibition had been repealed in BC in 1921, the Strathcona Room was the first place in Victoria to sell beverage alcohol by the glass since the law was enacted in 1917.
Today, the hotel’s venues have a capacity of 1,600 and comprise The Distrikt nightclub, The Sticky Wicket Pub and Restaurant, the Rooftop Patio with its beach volleyball courts, Big Bad John’s, The Clubhouse, and the Games Room. However, for many locals and visitors alike, its prime destination is the Strath liquor store, which has been selling fine wines, spirits and beers since it opened in April 2004.
“This was back when the government was going to get out of the liquor store business,” Olson says. He’d travelled to Alberta, which had privatized its liquor stores a few years earlier, to study how the high-end private liquor retailers operated in Calgary and Edmonton. His plan was to open a sophisticated store that would not only cater to downtown business people, but would supply surrounding hotels and restaurants, including The Empress. “We were setting up to be a full-service retailer providing product to all those outlets,” Olson explains. “A month before opening, we were informed that the BC Government was not only NOT getting out of the liquor business, but rather it was going to open stores on Sundays, build more and bigger stores and add refrigeration.”
And so, Olson says, “We decided to go big or go home.”
Instead of becoming a convenience store like so many other private retailers, the Olsons decided to become a destination for the finest quality products, such as whisky. “We’ve become the centre of the scotch scene in Victoria,” Olson says. The store’s manager, Megan Carson, adds, “We’re one of only two retail outlets in BC for the Single Malt Whisky Society, with new releases every month. I’ve managed the store for just over a year now, so I’ve inherited a lovely selection of whiskies and a knowledgeable staff, but it’s not just the whiskies.”
The store also promotes the growing number of high-quality local craft beers, wines and artisan spirits. “We seem to be finding these interesting spec products and getting them to our customers,” Olson says. Carson adds, “And there’s more coming along all the time. I’m struggling with space, and we have all these great products we want to sell.”
As a result, they have developed a booming trade selling to tourists who are specifically looking for regional products. “We’ll get some nice big yachts that will load up when they’re in the harbor, and that’s always a nice buy,” Olson describes. “We had a Chinese navy ship that came in right before Christmas and they bought every single bottle of ice wine in Victoria.”
Education and service are also an important part of the store’s strategy. Highly trained staff feature wines of the week, run specialized tastings, and play a key role in the Victoria Whisky Festival and Art of the Cocktail. Plus the Strath supports everything from sports teams, Kidsport, Women in Transition, as well as marquee events such as the annual PGA Golf Tournament and the Victoria Highland Games & Celtic Festival. “We’re trying to be a good community supporter of all sorts of things,” Olson says.
In part, it’s because the Strath’s many venues appeal to every market from locals, business people, sports teams and seniors’ bus tours.
“We committed as a family and team to create and grow a unique multifaceted venue a long time ago, opening venues that are dynamic and we continue to renovate every couple of years to keep people coming back. Simply put “There’s something for everyone at the Strath.”