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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Gins:  Ungava, St. Laurent, Romeo’s, Piger Henricus

www.ungava-gin.com

www.distilleriedustlaurent.com

www.romeosgin.com

www.pigerhenricus.com

The Books:  Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner and  I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière

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There’s an exciting new wave of artisanal gin-making in Québec. Very good reason for a summer tonic of Québecois writers. Where to begin?

THE GINS

Although most people drink their gin in cocktails, a good gin can stand alone. I start by tasting it cold and neat, and then later I’ll drop in an ice cube made by freezing tonic water, sometimes with a thin wedge of lime — a minimalist gin & tonic.

IMG_4494Let’s start with Ungava, the Quebec gin that’s received most of the attention to date. It’s been produced by Domaine Pinnacle in the Eastern Townships since 2010.

There’s no mistaking it. Its bright yellow colour definitely sets it apart. Woodsy citrus on the nose, juniper working its way through the peel. In the mouth a tart, herbal balance evened out with a peppery edge. Not as distinctly nordic as you might expect. Very good, though. And with the tonic, it mellowed to something smooth and savoury. (43% abv)

Domaine Pinnacle (whose products include ice cider, spiced rum, and maple whisky) set out to add to its off-beat range, to bring to market an uncommon gin (the yellow colour certainly accomplished that). Pinnacle president Charles Crawford sought out indigenous botanicals to infuse in a neutral, corn distillate. He found them in northern Québec, six flora native to the Ungava Peninsula : Nordic juniper (juniper being essential to gin), wild rose hips, Arctic blend (ukiurtatuq), Labrador tea, crowberry, and cloudberry. There, in late summer, a couple of people from Kuujjuaq set out on the tundra and harvest what he’ll need for the upcoming year, then ship it south to the production facility.

Ungava Gin — now sold in over 60 countries and winner of numerous awards — has been a great success. It’s done most things right, except for some of its early ads that proved less that sensitive to the Inuit way of life. It’s put Québec on the world gin map.

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St. Laurent Gin is noticeably different, with seaweed (specifically, the thick-ribbon, lasagna noodle-shaped kelp Laminar Longicuris) as part of the mix of botanicals. First to strike the eye is the classy label, reminicent of 19th century marine texts.

IMG_4482Is the gin behind the label equally well-crafted? A slight green hue in the glass, from the maceration of the seaweed. At first nosing, it’s surprisingly floral, the citrus and juniper eventually pushing forward. The saline is there on the taste buds. The seaweed doesn’t dominate, but rather plays about with the more traditional botanicals. Not the Laphroaig of gins, if that were anticipated. But interesting, and, in the mouth nicely balanced. With a little tonic and lime wedge would be my preference. (43% abv)

St. Laurent is distilled in Rimouski, Québec, hand-crafted by Joel Pelletier and Jean-François Cloudier in small batches using a 380-litre, “double gin-basket” still. As yet it is only available in selected outlets of the SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec), but that is bound to change. The duo have big plans and, based on the robustly positive reception this gin has received, are pressing forward with a strategy for the production of whisky.

The gin infuses nine traditional botanicals: juniper berries, coriander seeds, angelica root, cassia bark, liquorice root, lemon zest, bitter orange zest, cubeb berries, grains of paradise, before bringing on the seaweed from the St. Lawrence River. There’s a bit of a daredevil quality to this gin’s production. As the co-owners admit, they’re a “stubborn lot… with an independent streak as broad as the St. Lawrence.” Go for it, guys.

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To judge by the bottle, Romeo’s Gin is also a class act. It calls itself “Montreal Dry Gin” and visible through the liquid is a portrait of Mozart by Montreal urban Pop artist Stikki Peaches. It marries visual art and distilled spirit — an intriguing combination.

IMG_4490But let’s begin with the gin, first released in 2016. Perfectly clear in the glass, as it needs to be, given that you want Mozart to shine through. Bright and pure on the nose, the cucumber and citrus working past the juniper. On the palate — clean, fresh, and classic. It’s an altogether agreeable taste, with the cucumber and dill taking the lead. Go easy on the tonic. Very enjoyable both ways.

Behind Romeo’s Gin is Nicholas Duvernois, the entrepreneur responsible for the much-awarded PUR Vodka. The production facility is in Rougemont, just south of Montréal. Six botanicals — juniper, cucumber, dill, lavender, almond, and lemon — are brought together in the infusion, a relative small number, and perhaps allowing more of an opportunity for the individual components to shine through. The gin is bottled at a 46% abv, somewhat higher than the other three gins, giving it a bit more of a kick, something welcomed by cocktail makers, who like it when the spirit in a cocktail is less masked by its other ingredients.

Duvernois’ goal is freshness, reminiscent, he says, of Montréal in May, returning to life after a long winter. “I wanted a recipe that tastes like the creativity of Montréal, in the first post-hibernation Spring week.”

His aim goes beyond the production of top quality gin. He sees Romeo’s also as a way to bring attention to contemporary urban artists, from Montréal and beyond. It’s bringing art into the home of each person who purchases a bottle. With each new May release a work by an early-career artist who would benefit from broader exposure will be showcased. (Nothing like Absolut Vodka playing with the iconic imagery of Warhol.)  Duvernois has also established a Romeo Foundation, with 5% of profits used to help promote emerging artists, and especially to support art-making among children who might not otherwise have the access to art supplies. “Not a product with a cause,” asserts Duvernois, “but a cause with a product.”

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Piger Henricus Gin hit the market in 2012, the dream of three Montréal friends — Stéphan Ruffo, Fernando Balthazar, and Pascal Gervais — who quit their desk jobs, took off to New York and California for training, then returned to set up a micro-distillery. Since then they have been joined by a fourth partner, Robert Paradis. Out to buck a system that favours multi-national producers, they call themselves “Les distillateurs subversifs.”

In developing the gin they spent several months researching at Montreal’s Botanical Gardens, meeting with foragers, and experimenting with various combinations of  botanicals. In the end what they settled on included juniper berries, angelica root, coriander, cardamon, and lemon peel (no surprise there). Then, on the advice of a plant expert friend, came the kicker — parsnip. Yes that earthy, somewhat spicy, nut-flavoured root vegetable. An inspired choice.

IMG_4497In the glass it’s clear and bright. On the nose, mainly citrus showing itself, and the juniper. It’s in the mouth that the parsnip plays its part. A spicy sweetness making it a very pleasant sipper. I hesitate adding even the ice cube of tonic and follow the distillers’ suggestion of a touch of soda water, together with a shard of lime. Even that abbreviates the flavours. I prefer it cold and neat, in a frosted glass. Subversive!

The micro-distillery at Sainte-Alexandre, southeast of Montréal, draws pure spring water from a private source nearby. The gin is distilled in a 350-litre CARL copper pot still made in Germany. And the name? Piger Henricus is the moniker given to a type of furnace used for distillation by alchemists in the Middle Ages. . .with the goal of making a noble elixir from common ingredients.

THE BOOKS

I began reading Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner thinking it would eventually immerse me in the culture of Montréal’s Plateau. It doesn’t, not really. The three characters pitch there, but it is their separate, nomadic flights that generally fill the pages.

An unnamed narrator, whose life circles around the used bookstore in the city where he works, opens the story. He’s clearing out the contents of the home he once shared with his mother, recently deceased. Among his discoveries is a plastic compass, his one link with Jonas, the father he has never known, whose final resting place is Nikolski, a remote village in the Aleutians.

Nicolas DicknerThe wanderer Jonas, as it turns out, is also the father of Noah, who has been raised by his mother, mostly while roaming western Canada in a 1966 Bonneville station wagon. He eventually lands in Montréal, to take up the study of archaeology.

And there’s Joyce, trapped by the narrowness of life in a small fishing village on Québec’s North Shore, who also strikes out for Montréal, wanting to be more like her nomadic, seafaring uncle Jonas.

The paths of all three cross, but they never truly connect, which is the point of the novel – that lives are generally propelled by randomness, that the connections which might be made are often not realized, and what could resolve more than likely fails to do so.

The book defies what we expect of most novels. We generally long for connections, for resolution; we are put off by narrative untidiness. Instead, in Nikolski we are handed Dickner’s knack with language (wonderfully translated by Lazer Lederhendler), his ability to invigorate the story with the details found along the path each character craves, his quirky imaginative bent—it is these that will hold most readers to the end.

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Perhaps I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière (translated by David Homel) would be better paired with saké. But then again, the narrator is not really Japanese, and Laferriére hasn’t written a novel as such, rather a book about not writing a novel. It’s all so much metaphysical conceit, entertaining to the core.

We should expect nothing less from the Haiti-born resident of Montréal who in 1985 came up with what has to be one of the most go-for-broke titles ever affixed to a novel: “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.” Reading Laferrière, you are constantly rewarded by his political irreverence and wit. You just have to submit to the ride he offers, and in this case learn not to expect plot or immutable purpose.

The narrator’s publisher is insisting on a new book. He is willing to offer a substantial advance. Pause. Hurried contemplation. How about I Am a Japanese Writer? “Sold! We signed the contract: ten thousand euros for five little words.”

Dany LaAs it turns out, five rather provocative little words. After all the writer has grown up in the Carribbean, and now lives in Québec. To his credit he does have an obsession with the 17th-century Japanese poet Basho, he does consume a steady diet of stereotypical photos of  Japanese females from women’s magazines, and he has taken to chasing after a cluster of young Japanese party types through the streets of Montréal. Fair enough.

But what about getting around to actually writing the book? Perhaps the title alone is enough. Certainly it’s causing a huge sensation in Japan, where the population is overwhelmed by the notion that a black foreigner could propose he was “Turning Japanese” (as you might put it if you recall that 1980s song by The Vapors).

Laferrière’s writerly game is about nationalism, of course, about cultural identity in an increasingly multinational world. Does any artist deserve being claimed by any one nation?  The fact that Laferrière picked Japan, with one of the most homogenous populations anywhere (98.5% ethnic Japanese), but one obsessed by American pop culture, makes the debate as he’s framed it all the more weird and wonderful.

Final note: There is a gin made in Cambridge, England with the rather compelling name Japanese Gin.

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