How gin became the Canadian distilling scene’s most adventurous spirit

Experimentation and happy accidents at craft distilleries in Ontario and BC gave rise to a gin boom


Courtesy of Willibald

To oversimplify, gin is vodka that has been infused with a range of herbs, spices, fruits or flowers and then distilled. Juniper berries, the fruit of the coniferous shrubs that give gin its piney taste, are the key botanical in this spirit. From there, distillers can go wild, infusing any number of botanicals from citrus peels to star anise, ginger, coriander or lavender.

Ontario has experienced a distillery boom in recent years. Craft spirits now line liquor store shelves alongside major brands, and the rise of bottle shops has given drinkers even greater variety.

Gin is one of the most versatile spirits. From martinis to smashes to punches or a classic G&T, it’s a spirit with legs. Depending on the makeup of its botanicals, it can be spicy, bright and clear, fruit forward, floral or even smoky.

This chameleon-like nature adds an element of surprise to wake up more traditional cocktails, like gimlets or negronis. Canadian gins bear the mark of this land, with botanicals sourced from local farms, unexpected aging methods and even accidental vibrant hues that put a modern twist on this ancient spirit.

For Geoff Dillon, the founder of Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers in Beamsville, Ontario, experimentation is what makes gin the most exciting spirit to make.

“You get to really put your mark on it, more so than probably any other spirit and you get immediate results, unlike with whiskey,” he says.

Although Dillon’s is known widely for the five varieties of gin they produce, Dillon started the distillery to make 100 per cent rye whisky. But in Ontario, whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years before it is considered legit. Dillon’s wanted to create a rye whisky from scratch but it’s hard to open a distillery without any product, so Dillon launched the business with an unfiltered gin in 2012.

The cloudy, unrefined gin won numerous accolades, including a double gold medal at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, setting Dillon’s on a new trajectory. By then, the first batch of whisky had two and half years of aging to do, so Dillon expanded the distillery’s offering with a traditional London dry gin and rose, cherry and strawberry gins.

During Niagara Region’s strawberry season, overripe berries that aren’t suitable to sell are a stroke of luck for the distillery because the fruit is perfect for strawberry gin.

Occasionally, the distillery does one-offs or specialties like tart rhubarb gin made with plants from the patch of Geoff’s father, Peter Dillon, or barrel-aged plum gin made with plums from a nearby farm.

“The most fun part is taking the local stuff that’s grown here and showing it off,” Dillon says. “Anybody can make the spirits we make, that’s not the exciting part. It’s the story behind it, why and who you’re working with.”

Over in Ayr, Ontario, Willibald Farm and Distillery has a similar origin story. Opened in April 2017, co-founder Cam Formica also intended to make whisky. The first batch started aging a year before the distillery opened and it’s just about ready.

“You pretty much have to relinquish all control,” he explains. “You put up all the money, put all your faith into liquid going into a cask and then you just hope that after an extensive amount of years, it actually tastes like something someone else would want to buy.”

While waiting on that whisky drop, Willibald distills two gins and a vodka and launched a brewery in 2019.
Willibald’s pink and barrel-aged gins are both made from the same six botanicals (juniper, coriander, angelica root, caraway, cardamom and grapefruit peels), but have drastically different flavour profiles.

The pink gin contains raw wildflower honey from their beehives, making it very easy to drink neat or on ice. “We wanted to create something that yelled summer at the top of its lungs.”

Most Canadian-made gins stay true to traditional distilling methods, while having fun with notes and flavour profiles that accentuate uniqueness.

Willibald’s aged gin is a prime example. They distilled it the classic way and then barrel aged it, using methods common in bourbon production. “If you’re a whisky lover but you’re making gin first, you wonder: ‘What if we treated this kind of like a whisky and see what happens?”

The resulting gin works in a crisp gin and tonic, but also has enough backbone to be subbed in for whiskey in a sour or cocktails calling for dark liquor.

On the other side of the country, one of the buzziest Canadian gins was created when tradition coincided with a happy accident.

Empress 1908 came to be when Victoria Distillers wanted to create a gin “inspired by the city.” They partnered with the Fairmont Empress Hotel because of its storied afternoon tea service, which has been running since 1908.

They distilled gins using every single tea on the menu until they found the right fit. Empress 1908 is recognized for its striking indigo hue, which comes from the butterfly pea blossom in the Blue Suede Shoes tea.

Once all eight botanicals were added the distillers found the earthiness of the Blue Suede Shoes tea wasn’t coming through as expected. They tried infusing it post-distillation and the colouring was undeniable.

“We definitely refer to it as a happy accident,” says Meghan Rogers, social media coordinator for Victoria Distillers. “Another defining feature of the gin is the way the blossoms react and change colour depending on what you mix it with. That was a surprise to us. The butterfly pea blossoms are kind of like a natural litmus paper.”

Add anything acidic, like tonic or citrus, and the gin goes from a deep royal purple to magenta. Add alkaline ingredients, like cucumber or green teas, and it turns turquoise. Taste-wise, the colouring might have people assuming it’s very floral but the aromatic spice and heat from the cinnamon, cardamom and ginger really come through.

We asked Dillon’s, Empress 1908 and Willibald for some springtime gin cocktail recipes and their suggestions are refreshing, effervescent and unexpected.

Courtesy of Empress 1908

The Garden City by Empress 1908

Named after the city, this cocktail reminds Rogers of springtime, when flowers are in full bloom across Vancouver Island. This “super refreshing” cocktail calls for one and a half ounces of gin, a half ounce of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, a half ounce of fresh squeezed lemon juice, a half ounce of lychee syrup and optional soda water to top it off. Shake the syrup and the juices and strain them into a chilled glass filled with ice. Pour the gin over top and add the soda if you wish. Garnish with grapefruit slices and edible flowers if you’re feeling fancy.

Victoria Distillers, Victoria, British Columbia. $46.95/750 ml. Get it at the LCBO (lcbo.com).

The Willibald 71

This playful take on the classic French 75 cocktail calls for one ounce of gin, one ounce of an IPA (preferably something from the East Coast, so it’s citrusy), one ounce of fresh squeezed lemon juice and two thirds of an ounce of simple syrup. Give everything a quick shake and serve it straight up. The grapefruit in the gin comes to the forefront and really dazzles the senses, and the use of beer instead of the traditional champagne gives the cocktail a smoother and softer effervescence.

Willibald Family Distillery, Ayr, Ontario. Get the Original Aged Gin (750 ml) at the LCBO (lcbo.com) for $45.95 or from the distillery (1271 Reidsville, drinkwillibald.com) for $39.78. Get the Pink Gin (750 ml) from the distillery for $35.35.

The Spring Flower by Dillon’s

This cocktail was created in 2014 by Michael Bracegirdle at Toronto restaurant Canoe. It’s light and floral and calls for one and half ounces of rose gin, a half ounce of elderflower liqueur, a third of an ounce of Galliano and iced chamomile tea. Mix the gin and liqueurs together and then pour into a glass filled with ice. Top with the tea and garnish with micro herbs.

Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers, Beamsville, Ontario. Get the Rose Gin (750 ml) at the distillery (4833 Tufford Rd, store.dillons.ca) for $50 or at LCBO (lcbo.com) for $24.95 (only the 375 ml bottle is available at LCBO).

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