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Food & Wine Gin with a spin: Quebec distillers infusing spirit with local flavours

Distillerie Cirka’s Gin Sauvage is alcohol created from 100-per-cent Quebec-grown corn, to which more than 30 botanicals are added.

The craft distillery boom has recently reached Quebec, where a slew of micro-distilleries have set up shop in the past couple of years. By Canadian federal law, a spirit is required to age in wood for a minimum of three years to be called whisky. So while distillers wait, they are dabbling in gin, which can come to market as those other barrels age.

Distillery 1769 in Verdun is named for the first recorded distillery in Quebec City, and its gold medal award-winning Madison Park is a classic London-style dry gin. But the traditional mix of botanical ingredients is merely a starting point for boutique gin distillers, which are creating spirits that convey a real sense of place. Call it a terroir tipple, with a twist.

In the province's Gaspé region, Louiseville's Distillerie Mariana is the passion project of three former forestry workers. The distillery gets its monicker from picea mariana, the Latin name for black spruce, and its vodka is made from buckwheat, a well-known local crop. Its Canopée Dry Gin Forestier ($34.75 at the SAQ) ventures deeper into the wilds of Canada for its foraged flavour notes. It is, in essence, a profoundly aromatic boreal walk in a glass: woodsy and earthy with a smoky cedar nose. It won bronze at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits competition.

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Distillerie Cirka calls the evocative use of distinctive Quebec botanicals in gin "an expression of ici." Its distillers take the spirit of that expression quite literally. Unlike most microdistilleries that craft gin from neutral spirits sourced elsewhere (often in Ontario), the artisan distillery, which is situated on Montreal's Lachine canal, is fully grain-to-bottle. Its Gin Sauvage is alcohol created from 100-per-cent Quebec-grown corn, to which more than 30 botanicals are added ($46.75 at the SAQ; the gin is also stocked at liquor stores in Nova Scotia and Alberta and is available to through www.cirka.ca).

Expanding outside its native New Brunswick, Acadian micro distillery Fils du Roy has set up a second location in Saint-Arsène, Que., to produce Gin Thuya ($39.25 at the SAQ, also available at NB Liquor and the NSLC), relying on Eastern white cedar for its name and its nose. Nearby, Rimouski's Gin du St-Laurent heads to the coastal region for inspiration and ingredients from the province's storied river. This gin's distinguishing feature is the iodine waft and faintly mineralic flavour that comes from its defining ingredient, hand-harvested seaweed (laminaria a.k.a. brown kelp), which is combined with fragrant cassia, angelica and coriander.

For St-Laurent's arresting teal and gold gin label, industrial designer Chad Michael commissioned ink drawings that resemble antique encyclopedia illustrations of unusual underwater creatures, bivalves disgorging pearls and steampunk style deep-sea diver masks. "Our inspiration for the branding was the Jules Verne universe," co-founder Joël Pelletier says of the whimsical look. Stocked in the SAQ ($48.25) and at shops in Switzerland, it's won awards for both its packaging and taste.

Pelletier and his business partner Jean-François Cloutier quit their day jobs last summer to devote themselves to spirits full time. When I spoke with them in late January, they had just received their new 1,000-litre alambic still that will dramatically increase production. St-Laurent's barrel-aged gin is due out later this year and uses casks from Kentucky's Wild Turkey distillery. It's a precursor to other new spirits they will release next fall including rum and, eventually, whisky.

Pelletier says that whisky is why they went into business in the first place. After all, the Bas-Saint-Laurent region is Quebec's largest producer of barley, to the tune of nearly 50,000 tons annually. And because the grain goes mainly to cattle farmers for feed, "we thought there might be a better way to use it," Pelletier says.

No doubt a tastier one, too.

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