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FOOD AND DRINK

4 MIN

Montreal Embraces a New Gin Craze

A largely francophone city and province develop a taste for English-inspired spirits (done with local ingredients and flavours)

Gin is the new whisky. Well, in Barcelona it is, and London, and Rotterdam, where gin bars have become standard. Even more specifically, gin and tonic bars are offering dozens of varieties of what used to seem like a pretty standard – and pretty generic – drink.

But Canada has lagged on this one. There may be a gin bar in Toronto, or Halifax, or St. John’s, but I haven’t found it.

It's Montreal that has been laying the groundwork for a genuine gin scene over the past few years. This is both odd, and wholly appropriate. Appropriate, because Montreal is the historical centre of Canadian distilling, with operations like Seagrams growing up and out amid the grain silos along the Lachine Canal; and odd, because gin, that bulwark of English drinking culture, is enjoying such a resurgence in a part of the country that has not always been especially sympathetic to English values and customs. Nevertheless, as of 2013, Quebec was Canada’s highest per capita consumer of the stuff.

The first sign that things might be changing was I’Isle Noire, an old, established whisky bar on lower St. Denis. Owner (and anglophile) Michel Lavallée, wanted to add another British layer to the then 20-year-old pub. Then, in 2011, Le Pourvoyeur opened next to Jean Talon Market as a full-fledged gin bar, serving about 100 gins (and little else). Then, about 2½ years ago came the Bishop and Bagg, from the same team that gave the city the well-loved sports-and-whisky bar the Burgundy Lion. At the moment, they’ve got about 115 gins.

Meanwhile the real explosion is in distilling, and it’s happening right now.

Those who have kept their gin-attuned ears to the ground will have heard of Ungava, Quebec’s biggest (and yellowest) gin. Then came St. Laurent, distilled in Rimouski using seaweed from the St. Lawrence. That was last year. But in the past eight months, no fewer than six gins have sprouted from le beaux terroir. According to Linda Bouchard of the Quebec liquor authority, the SAQ, gin sales have risen 80% in the last year.

Just last week, Paul Cirka, a former software developer for digital imaging company Discreet Logic, released Cirka Gin Sauvage, a gin business partner Joanne Gaudreau describes as “forestier,” introducing me to the most useful gin descriptor I’ve yet encountered. It means “of the forest,” and its meaning is distinct from the closest anglo equivalents. Unlike the English term “earthy,” for example, forestier focuses more on what grows in the forest than what the forest grows out of. Using botanicals straight from the Boreal, like pine cones and fireweed, as well as farther-flung bits and pieces like seville oranges, Sauvage is bright-tasting, with a distinct and pleasant character.

Courtesy Cirka Gin

Gaudreau says Cirka tried a lot of different recipes before settling on the 30 ingredients that ultimately went into Sauvage, helped along the way by the brand ambassador, celebrated Montreal mixologist Romain Cavalier. Their goal was to make something that would stand up on its own, while incorporating itself well into cocktails and mixed drinks. “We’re all big negroni fans here,” she says, referring to the gin, Campari and vermouth cocktail, “so it had to work well in those.”

Though they have plans to export it to other provinces, deals are still well off. So for the foreseeable future, Quebec is the only place you’re going to find Cirka.

The gin hit the market as of this summer, and Cirka is already started offering drinks classes at its distillery right next to the Lachine Canal. Currently being held on the third Thursday of every month, Gaudreau says they’ll be offering the classes more frequently soon to meet the demand.

“We’re kind of where craft brewers were 20 years ago,” Gaudreau says, implying that Cirka and other Quebec craft gins including Madison Park, Gin Thuya and Canopée could put Quebec's microdistilling on the map just as beers like Maudite, Trois Pistoles and Bell Gueule did for Quebec's brewing scene.

Quebec gins are often notably unique. Take Neige, made by a local cider maker using “apple water.” It’s the exemplum of the relationship between gin and the flavours infused into it. The apple flavour is definitely there, but it’s blasted by the spirit’s alcoholic power, leaving a sort of Nagasaki silhouette of the apple-y esters in its wake; the apple flavour is denatured in a way, but recognizable and, more importantly, enjoyable.

It’s gins like this that have led to another specifically Montreal trend: the consumption of gin neat – that is, on its own, the way you would serve whisky or brandy. Sitting at the bar of his pub as one of Montreal’s near-continuous flow of festivals plays out on the closed-off street below, Lavallée says most of the gin he sells is either neat or on the rocks. I’m sure someone in Toronto has ordered straight gin in a bar before, but I’ve never witnessed it. To savour St. Laurent’s seaweed, Neige’s apple, the fishy dill of Romeo’s or the honey of popular Vermont import Barr Hill, however, neat is exactly the way you want to drink it.

If you approach Le Pourvoyeur from behind, on the market side, you’ll be greeted by a sign that just says “GIN BAR” in all caps. Like L’Ile Noire, it’s a laid-back place, with as many people drinking lager as gin the afternoon I was there. Bartender Alexandre Lamoureux introduces me to an Italian gin he’s a big fan of, just released this year. With its unwieldy name — Il Gin del Professor a la Madama — people mostly just ask for “the Italian one.” It’s vernal, citronically herbal, and once again thoroughly different, like a mixed drink all on its own.

Bert Archer/Billy

Le Pourvoyeur bartender Alexandre Lamoureux

The gin from Few, a distillery in Evanston, Illinois, is another favourite of the house. It's the base for Pourvoyeur’s popular “gin fashioned,” which takes advantage of the fact that Few is aged, or “rested,” in bourbon barrels, making it taste a sort of like a cedary whisky.

At Bishop and Bagg, co-owner Steve Owen extols the virtues of the Quebec gin Piger Henricus, made in part with parsnips. Along with 25 vermouths, 15 amaros, and 114 or so other gins, it’s one potential ingredient in what Owen says are the approximately 30,000 different negronis you could order as part of the bar’s build-your-own-negroni program [we ran the numbers and it’s 42,750 – ed.]. Owen says Bishop and Bagg will create a menu that suggests favourite combinations of the staff and bartenders from elsewhere in Montreal, to help customers make the choice. 

Bert Archer/Billy

Bishop and Bagg owner Steve Owen

And with Bishop and Bagg making its own tonic, Montreal may also be on its way to a full-blown Rotterdam- or Barcelona-style G&T craze, too. Who knows? It could be the beginning of a whole gin-based Anglo-French détente.

Published Friday, August 5th 2016

Header image credit: St. Laurent Gin is made with seaweed/Courtesy Distillerie du St. Laurent

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