When drinks experts Davin de Kergommeaux and Blair Phillips wrote The Definitive Guide to Canadian Distilleries, it was meant as a travel guide to the Canadian spirits world. Featuring more than 200 artisanal and commercial producers across the country, the book highlights each region with custom-drawn maps and distiller profiles. For now, however, while Canadians stay safe at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the book provides armchair travel. Just as the lockdown began and many distillers across Canada pivoted production to alcohol-based sanitizer products for front-line workers, The Globe spoke with co-author Davin de Kergommeaux about highlights of the Canadian spirits landscape, and what’s next for the industry.
What did you originally hope to accomplish writing this guide?
It’s a travel book, hopefully suggesting to people is that it’s not just about visiting one distillery, but that all over Canada there are little distillery trails. It answers the question, in any direction, “What should I do and see next?”
As you note in the book, there’s a lot of revenue in alco-tourism. What have you been thinking about as the pandemic response brings that to a halt?
How many distilleries really rely on tourism. Not only in the sale of their spirits but in an on-site restaurant, bar, tasting sessions. Value-added becomes a significant part of their daily cash flow particularly in the early days, and merchandise is a big deal. Some were already just living hand-to-mouth and, as visitors drop off, I don’t like to talk about doomsday but I think there will be some shake-out.
The book includes context about historical regulatory challenges the Canadian spirits industry has faced. What are current restrictions you’d change to help artisan distillers thrive?
We could have rules that would make it much, much easier for the small distillers to succeed financially. For example, if they were allowed to sell their spirits on-premises without paying all the taxes – like to avoid all the LCBO or provincial liquor board markup and just pay excise taxes and GST. If you made that rule for everybody it would hugely benefit the small distilleries because that would be 95 per cent of their business.
What’s the alternative until it’s safe to hit the road and visit in person again?
Many of the small distilleries do mail order. If people are not able to leave home, what better time to treat yourself to some of these new artisanal products? They represent something that you cannot purchase from the major distillers. When you’ve got your whole heart and investment in your distillery, in just a few products and no economies of scale, you really have to figure out how to make it special. Especially when products can cost almost twice as much as those of large distillers. We know liquor is very much price-sensitive – at the liquor store, five cents in the price can be the difference between buying this one or that one. So people need to talk about how and why they do it, how it represents their locality, that it’s money well spent.
What are your favourite examples of this?
Take the sumac berries that Legend Distilling in Naramata, B.C. are using; the lemon flavours you get from that are genuinely unique, those materials aren’t available in large quantities, it’s not reproduceable on a large scale. Or at Pemberton, they’re digging and burning their own peat. Talk about people who are insanely passionate about what they’re doing. Like Sébastien Roy at Fils du Roy in New Brunswick: The Gin Thuya is terroir-based flavour that is hyper-local. Then you go out to Sheringham on Vancouver Island and they’re using winged kelp that they harvest, walking-distance from the distillery, for their Seaside Gin. And it’s spectacular. It’s not Tanqueray.
What has been the biggest surprise or most unexpected Canadian spirit you’ve tasted so far?
There are many, but one that’s wonderful is Acérum [from Distillerie Shefford], a white spirit made entirely from maple sap. Distilled, it has elements of the woodiness of the maple. There’s nothing more Canadian than that. The book has also been a revelation of how good vodka can be, because Canada is making vodka unlike anywhere else in the world. I am not a vodka fan, so it was a bit of a shock.
If you could have just a couple of bottles…
I would take any bottle from Two Brewers in the Yukon. If I had to pick just one it would be Shelter Point Smoke Point whisky, matured in barrels that previously held Laphroiag whisky. But in another week, I’ll have a different favourite.
What are you sipping as the weather warms up?
My current tipple is local gin. I really love the Sheringham Seaside Gin, and the Saskatoon Honey Gin from Alberta’s Eau Claire is really springy and really nice for this season.
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