Beyond martinis: Local distilleries shake (and stir) things up with gin

Gin has always been a popular spirit, but it's being made by more craft distilleries in Waterloo region and the surrounding area, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

Cocktail craze means 'gin has become huge again,' says Kypp Saunders

Sure, you could add strawberries to a martini to change things up. But local distilleries are doing even more with gin, including ageing it in wine and beer barrels or infusing it with unique flavours to give people something different, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

It's a classic spirit, but gin is seeing a surge in popularity, particularly in Waterloo region and the surrounding areas.

There are at least four distilleries in the region as well as Wellington and Perth counties, and it's rapidly becoming a more popular beverage, according to Jessica Sharkey, general manager at White Rabbit bar in Waterloo.

"It's used to be all vodka, as far as clear spirits. So much so that major vodka producers have been pushing their products more in the last couple of years because of how much more popular gin is becoming," Sharkey said.

Gin is thousands of years old and is essentially vodka flavoured with juniper, the astringent, bluish-black berries in North America and Europe. The LCBO lists over 100 gin and gin-based products from around the world.

Cocktail aficionado Kypp Saunders is about to open a subterranean "speakeasy," Sugar Run, in downtown Kitchener.

He says gin is popular because it's relatively easy to make, and it's versatile.

"The thing about gin is that it really lends itself well to cocktails in general. With this whole new cocktail craze that's resurfaced over the last 10 [years], gin has become huge again," Saunders says.

In talking to members of the restaurant industry, it's clear that while customers are asking for their gin by name, they may not be aware that the gin is local.

Here are the some of the ones located in our area.

Dixon's Distilled Spirits, Guelph

Co-owner Vicky Dixon says gin production is ramping up despite bureaucratic obstacles.

"I think the industry is growing because people want to know what's in their alcohol, and they like supporting local. Growth is coming, but it's slow. That's due to taxes of 61.5 % in Ontario," Dixon says.

An additional barrier to market entry is that some sales are allowed only through the LCBO.

"They say spirits aren't allowed, so we can't sell our coolers in grocery stores," according to Dixon. "It's an uphill battle for spirits."

In business for about four years, Dixon's makes a 100 per cent corn-based gin eschewing the traditional botanicals for a bit more citrus and licorice.

"We're not heavy into juniper," she says.

You can drop by the distillery for a sample, and there are Saturday tours available, if booked ahead.

Junction 56's wheat-based gin has a slight sweetness from the wheat that "softens the edges" of the astringent juniper, according to distillery owner Mike Heisz. (Junction 56 Distillery/Facebook)

Junction 56 Distillery, Stratford

This wheat-based gin has a slight sweetness from the wheat that "softens the edges" of the astringent juniper, according to distillery owner Mike Heisz.

"I won't say it's more modern in style, but our standard gin is less traditional with less emphasis on juniper. Instead, there's an emphasis on complementary flavours of lavender and citrus," he says.

The gin is made through a combination of vapour and pot distillation with a steep process of 22 hours. Junction 56 makes several flavoured gins.

"Gin is growing in terms of the number of distilleries, but it's a long, slow build to develop a brand in this market," says Heisz, who is also president of the Ontario Craft Distillers Association. "With the LCBO, it's a three or four year proposition [to get the brand out there]. It's also hard to get consumers to change their taste preferences."

Saturday tours are offered at Junction 56, but check with the distillery for availability depending on the time of the year. The cost is $15 including tastings.

Dixon's in Guelph ages gin in stout barrels they got from Wellington Brewery for this unique take on the classic spirit. (Dixon's Distilled Spirits/Facebook)

Willibald Farm Distillery, Ayr

Willibald makes a unique product: Gin made from a blend of corn, rye, barley and infused with botanicals, but aged in American oak casks from four to 10 months, which gives it an amber colour.

Willibald will soon be in 100 LCBO stores across Ontario, according to co-founder Cam Formica.

"That's a start. We're hoping to grow beyond that, ideally to 150 stores by the end of the year," he adds.

Willibald has their popular flagship gin, as well as a liquor with apples and warming spices released this winter.

"It's a sort of mulled apple whisky," Formica says.

The Willibald restaurant is open Wednesday to Saturday for dinner (lunch on Saturday) and has wood-fired pizza and house-made charcuterie, as well as beef, pork and other dishes that focus on ingredients from the 100-acre Willibald property.

"We're a true farm-to-table restaurant," he says.

Coming up, Formica says look for Willibald pink gin to be released in LCBO stores starting in May.

"It's been aged for a year in Niagara red wine casks. It takes on a really nice, light salmon hue, and we tweak it slightly with some wildflower honey from our hives on the farm," he said.

Call the distillery for information about tours.

Murphy's Law Distillery, Elmira

Operating for about four years, Murphy's Law Moonshine is not gin, but it is 100 per cent corn-based "moonshine," with a technique that owner Ben Murphy learned in West Virginia while on an athletic scholarship.

"It's the same process as making a whisky, where we mash it, ferment it and distill it," Murphy says. "Instead of aging it, it gets proofed down and bottled. It has some sweetness from the corn and is like Bourbon on the palate. It finishes like a decent tequila."

Murphy's also produces 15 flavoured moonshines, including apple pie and maple cream, available at select LCBO outlets or online.

Distillery tours include tastings, a run-down on how moonshine is made and how Murphy's Law came to be.

Tours are Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and are $10 (plus HST) per person.


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