I recently sampled an assortment of white domestic craft spirits and am pleased to report that I not only survived but – bonus! – did not go blind. That’s not a swipe against most of the fine elixirs, which, in fact, were impressive, if only for the fact they are mainly made by distillers new to the game. Some I even considered to be superb. It’s just that, to be candid, I found four or five to be about as smooth as a back-seat ride in a Dukes of Hazzard car chase. My mind in a couple of cases flashed back to the garage grappa that was my late father’s ambrosia back in the day, when $20 was good for a gallon of “mineral water” delivered under cover of night by an entrepreneurial member of Toronto’s Italo-Canadian community.
I think the bootleg parallel would not be entirely insulting to a couple of the producers in question. That’s because they’ve gone out of their way to reference liquor’s illicit past in their packaging. Terms such as “white lightning” and “moonshine” have begun to spill over from the trendsetting U.S. craft-distilling world, where the symbolism of backwoods, Prohibition-era hooch is very much en vogue. We’re seeing Mason jars, too, the historic vessels of convenience for home brew.
Today’s “legal moonshines” – if that isn’t a contradiction – are young, grain-based spirits that, in most cases, see no wood-barrel maturation. And unlike most vodkas, they are not distilled to a high proof or filtered incessantly for neutrality and smoothness. They are raw by design.
Even in this category, though, I found one that stood out above others and is worthy of a recommendation. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was, against type, aged for a year in barrel; specifically, wood that had previously contained Tennessee whisky. Fans of the old rock band Pink Floyd are likely to give the product high marks for its name alone. It’s called Dark Side of the Moonshine. And just to make sure people don’t associate it with bona fide rotgut, it’s packaged in a standard bottle. No Mason jar here.
Like most Canadian craft spirits, the selections below are produced in small quantities and receive limited store distribution. It’s best to contact each company regarding availability.
Cirka Gin Sauvage (Québec)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $46.75
Cirka refers to its products as “expressions of ici,” which I think gets to the point more quickly and clearly than the more nebulous wine concept of terroir. Ici is French for “here,” of course, and in this case that means the distillery’s home of Montreal or, more broadly, the surrounding area. The botanical flavourings in this gin, whose base spirit was distilled from Quebec corn on site rather than purchased in bulk as neutral grain spirit, number more than 30 and were selected to showcase the aromatic scents of Quebec’s boreal forest. And this is one wonderful walk in the woods. Dry and substantial, the spirit is anchored soundly in juniper, reflecting the London Dry style, while also big on citrus and the fresh, breezy essence of pine needles, as well as earthy roots. Great energy and depth. Bottled at 44-per-cent alcohol. Available in Quebec liquor stores and at the distillery through cirka.ca.
St. Laurent Gin (Québec)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $48.50
Interesting colour: faintly grey, like a skin-contact pinot grigio. Clearly – pardon the counter-pun – this is no run-of-the-mill gin. Distilled on the shores of the St. Lawrence in Rimouski, Que., from corn, it’s reassuringly juniper forward, floral and dry, with a crowd-pleasing orange essence. Then the tide begins to rise in the form of a salty, maritime algae note. The source: seaweed from the big river. That’s what I call terroir (or “mer-roir”?). An inspired recipe. Available in Quebec at the above price, $49.95 in Nova Scotia, www.distilleriedustlaurent.com.
Lundy’s Lane 1814 Small Batch Gin (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $35.70
A London Dry style, produced by Niagara Falls Craft Distillers. The harmony and complexity are impressive. Juniper sits in the foreground, along with citrus, then refreshing cucumber establishes a bridge to the savoury side, with coriander-led spices and pine. Available through niagarafallscraftdistillers.com.
Wolfhead Limestone Craft Distillery Vodka (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $35.30
From Amherstburg, Ont., just south of the rum-running capital of Windsor. Grain forward, it suggests bread and earth along with hints of licorice and pepper. Worthy of a simple martini. Bottled at 40-per-cent alcohol. Available in select Ontario LCBO stores and direct at drinkwolfhead.com.
Dixon’s Silvercreek Vodka (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.95
Made in Guelph, Ont., from Canadian corn and filtered through carbon. Creamy and smooth, with a light prickle of black-pepper spice along with licorice and a bready undercurrent. Mellow is the word. Tasty would be another. Bottled at 40-per-cent alcohol. Available in select Ontario LCBO stores and direct through dixonsdistilledspirits.com.
Illuminati Vodka (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.95
This comes from North of 7 Distillery, Ottawa’s first craft producer. The establishment’s name is a nod to the cottage location of one of its founders, Greg Lipin, since the place is located north of Highway 7. The vodka is produced from corn and displays the grain’s classic, rounded smoothness. There’s a touch of sweetness to this easy-sipping spirit, with whispers of vanilla and spice. Very fine for those who like their vodka straight up or mixed with plain soda, though it would be equally at home in a cocktail. Available through northof7distillery.ca.
Tempo Renovo Dry Gin (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $29.99
Produced in Vancouver, this might be considered a member of the new-age gin club, fruity and floral and not quite as juniper heavy or bracingly dry as Her Majesty might be accustomed to sipping. It’s made by the company behind the excellent bargain brand Sid the Handcrafted Vodka. Lemon-lime sorbet and a big floral-pastille essence. Available in British Columbia at the above price, various prices in Alberta and through gwdistilling.com.
Junction 56 Distillery Gin (Ontario)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $35.15
A spicy gin style from Stratford, Ont. My first impression of the flavour was Indian curry and lemongrass. Another critic I sampled this with cited “Vitalis and Aqua Velva.” (What can I say? I didn’t do much grooming in the 1970s.) Offbeat, certainly, but compelling. Bottled at 41.3-per-cent alcohol. Available at select Ontario LCBO stores and direct through junction56.ca.
Last Straw Distillery Dark Side of the Moonshine (Ontario)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $35
Made in in the community of Vaughan, in a busy industrial area on the outskirts of Toronto, not far from a large shopping mall – hardly the hills of Appalachia. But then this isn’t quite moonshine, either. Made from Ontario corn, it was aged for more than a year in a Tennessee whiskey barrel, which has imparted a pale yellowness, if not quite amber darkness. It’s not quite whisky, though, because to be defined as such in Canada a spirit must be matured for at least three years in wood. Slightly sweet on the attack, it delivers a charred-barrel note along with creamy nuttiness, vanilla and an intriguing, chamomile-like floral quality. Bottled at 46-per-cent alcohol. The price was recently reduced from $45. Available through madebyhand.laststrawdistillery.com.