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Reinventing Tom Collins: The Canadian gin identity is shaping up to be as distinct and diverse as the country

Ben Deacon mixes a drink called Heat ‘n’ Herbs at Momofuku in Toronto.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Assuming spring ever fully gets under way, the year's first patio spree is bound to be met with an unusual degree of enthusiasm.

After months of hunkering over tumblers of high-octane brown spirits, it's time to celebrate the latest Canadian gins – the traditional liquor of record to welcome the new season. In the east, locavores are keen about Dillon's (from Beamsville, Ont.) and Ungava (Cowansville, Que.) and, on the West Coast, where bartenders have long enjoyed a fine local option in Victoria Gin, they now also have Schramm's Organic and Okanagan Spirits Gin to play with.

None of these upstarts have much in common with the peppery London dry gin, with its strong juniper and light citrus characteristics. The Canadian gin identity is shaping up to be as distinct and diverse as the country, from Okanagan's rose and spruce-tip notes to Ungava's aromatic nose, tart berry taste and bizarre yellow colour. Dillon's, noticeably cloudy – it's unfiltered – carries a distinct eau-de-vie sweetness, an oily body, a distinct licorice and citrus taste and an almost total absence of gin's defining flavour, juniper.

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None of these, then, are likely to turn up in a dry martini, which favours a crisp, clear and spicy gin. As such, bartenders are twisting long drinks, like the Tom Collins, to balance and tame the new Canadian gins' pronounced botanicals. At Clive's Classic Lounge in Victoria, bartender Kate McDonald says the classic long drink is an underrated and neglected style that's finally coming back into play. It's also the quintessential spring drink – tall, clean and refreshing, it cools you down and simultaneously perks you up with a hit of tart citrus and bouncy bubbles.

"People are finally remembering that you can take a drink that's really strong and bold and open it up with a little soda water," she says.

McDonald attributes under-dilution – the super-strong, spirit-forward, straight-up drinks that have ruled bar tops of late – to the recent move toward "palate pissing contests," where people try trying to prove the sophistication of their taste by drinking extreme-tasting things others can't. Light and refreshing session drinks like the Collins are an antidote to that trend and something in which McDonald does a brisk trade, largely with the addition of herbs and spices like basil and black pepper to complement Victoria Gin's strong sarsaparilla flavour.

Other bartenders are lightening the flavours with bubbles of another kind, adding sparkling wine to citrus and gin, a trend sparked by influential Portland, Ore., bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler's confession that he prefers the classic French 75 champagne cocktail when it's served over cracked ice, transforming it into a Collins with champagne instead of soda. This inspired Kelowna, B.C., bar manager Micah Jensen at RauDZ to invent the Boss, a tall, rich, Collins-esque cocktail made with Okanagan Spirits Gin, citrus, blackcurrant liqueur (also made by Okanagan) and a local sparkling wine.

Okanagan produces liqueurs exclusively for RauDZ, a "regional table" restaurant that prides itself on extreme locavorism. And although the field-to-glass philosophy is a little easier to implement in the Okanagan Valley, the movement is spreading even to Toronto's downtown core, where the Momofuku complex is working with Dillon's Distillery to make the most of the Niagara region's harvest.

"We try as much as possible to see if there's a local alternative we can use in all our food and drinks," says Momofuku bar manager Jonathan Gonsenhauser, "And we just loved the story of Dillon's, a father, son and old friend who teamed up because of their passion for spirits."

Open a mere 18 months, Dillon's was established by distiller Geoff Dillon, his chemist father Peter (in charge of the botanicals), and family friend Gary Huggins, who runs the show. Both Dillon's gin and white rye are available through the LCBO and can be seen at dozens of Toronto cocktail bars.

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Momofuku's spring drinks menu features a sparkling Dillon's gin bottled cocktail along with Heat 'n Herbs (Dillon's gin, pineapple/sage syrup, chili tincture, lemon juice and sparkling wine), a sweet, spicy and slightly savoury take on the new face of the Tom Collins.

"It's a win-win since many guests haven't heard of Dillon's," explains Gonsenhauser, "So it gives us a chance to give them something new and, at the same time, support a local distiller."

Tom Collins

2 oz gin

1 oz fresh lime juice

½ egg white

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2 teaspoons superfine sugar

3 oz soda water

Shake the first four ingredients vigorously over ice. Strain into Collins glass over fresh ice. Add soda water for a frothy top.

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