Gin making in Europe under threat because of a juniper fungus, but Ontario producers doing just fine.
Gin is in trouble. A spirit of gloomy mythology — once considered the ‘mother’s ruin’ — the BBC reported last week that European gin producers are under attack from a fungus destroying juniper crops across the continent.
The berry, native to North America, is an essential ingredient in what was Queen Victoria’s favourite spirit, but Ontario’s two gin producers aren’t losing any sleep over it yet.
While Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers in Beamsville purchase juniper from neighbouring fields, they also grow their own. “We had a nursery grow us a big pile of a special juniper bush that gives an enormous amount of berries,” says master distiller Geoff Dillon. “We are planting them all around our distillery so that will be our main source very soon.”
In Prince Edward County, Sophie Pantazi of 66 Gilead, whose Loyalist Gin is available at the LCBO, says their juniper grows on their farm. “It doesn’t mean we’re immune but our own plantings are doing fine,” she says.
Rather, they’re focused on allowing a burgeoning craft distilling industry mired in antiquated provincial regulations to thrive like their counterparts in the wine and craft beer markets.
In May, the two distilleries, along with Still Waters in Concord and Toronto Distillery Co., who all use local grain, fruit and plants whenever possible, sent a letter to members of the provincial legislature, including Minister of Economic Development Eric Hoskin, calling for the reform of “stale and punitive” regulations dating back to prohibition, which ended in 1927.
“When you’re a winery and you sell a bottle in your store for $12, you keep nearly all that amount,” says Dillon. But things aren’t so easy for distillers, whose stores act as LCBO agents.
If a distillery sets a retail price of $26.85, the LCBO’s 139 per cent markup, dictated by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, plus federal excise taxes and freight costs, means the producer will only receive $5.83. “Our bottles cost about half of that,” says Dillon, who receives calls every week from aspiring distillers. “When I tell them about the requirements, they ask how anyone can make any money if you’re only making two dollars a bottle?”
Until then, money must come from other sources, says Pantazi. “We’re on a farm property, so we get rental income for other people who use the land, and we also have on-site cooperage.”
They also profit from sales of T-shirts and glasses offered in the gift shop during their tours, which draws hundreds of visitors per weekend to their site, a former hops plantation.
Both distilleries, located in wine-rich areas of Ontario, would love to see a more vibrant, dedicated spirits tourism industry, similar to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in the U.S., which generated 1.7 million visits in the last five years.
Dillon expects his gin will soon be listed at the LCBO. In the meantime, his White Rye appeared on whisky shelves in April. Pantazi says 66 Gilead’s Loyalist Gin is selling well by the provincial regulator’s standards and hopes that word of mouth — rather than the LCBO’s cost-prohibitive advertising — will help gain awareness of Ontario gin.
Local restaurateurs and bars are helping with that awareness but also wish they could buy directly from the distillers. “We buy directly from wineries, so why not spirits?” says Jeff Carroll of the County General on Queen St. W. He recently brought in Dillon’s as their premium gin, replacing the ubiquitous Hendrick’s. “I love things that are local, but it’s honestly one of the best gins I’ve ever tasted,” he says.
Heather MacGregor of the LCBO said: “The relationship between LCBO Spirits Category and local Ontario craft distillers is quite positive. We are aware of the emerging trend toward locally produced products, including craft spirits, and are very receptive to providing these products for our customers. We have committed to supporting the growth of this industry as part of our three-year strategic focus.
“LCBO began carrying products from Ontario craft distillers last year and currently we offer six such items, which are quite obviously available in limited supply. While sales of products from Ontario craft distillers represents a very small part of our spirits business, we have seen encouraging sales results and consumer interest. We continue to meet with suppliers and distillers and have several products currently under consideration.”
What if worldwide juniper crops suddenly disappeared, devastating the gin industry in much the same way a phylloxera outbreak wrote off the wine industry in the late 19th century?
“If it’s the end of gin, there are other options,” says Pantazi. “Instead of juniper, we’re infusing fresh pine needles,” she says of her naturally-flavoured Pine Vodka, available at the LCBO. “It’s basically gin, but we’re not allowed to call it that.”
It’s a Canadian gin, she says, and both the spirit, and the industry, should be allowed to prosper.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on June 26, 2013.