Gin drinkers, so the stereotype goes, are strong in personality, stiff in the upper lip and, above all, British to the bone. They write about the travails of the poor, diseased masses (Charles Dickens) when not ruling over them (Queen Elizabeth II). They drink it before, during and after sex and/or fisticuffs (James Bond), or bombing Germans (Winston Churchill). In other words they are so much the personification of their preferred tipple: dry, cold, faintly medicinal.
Strange, then, that the recently declared best gin in the world is made across the pond from Mother Britannia—way across the pond, in the hinterland of French North America. Since 2010, Quebec-based Domaine Pinnacle has produced Ungava, a gin made with botanicals harvested exclusively from the Ungava Peninsula, the province’s northernmost point.
It is a difficult gin to miss. When Ungava won a Best of Show award at the prestigious World Spirits Competition last week, a judge noted its “unusual colour that helps grab your senses.” It’s perhaps the most polite way of drawing attention to Ungava’s yellow tint, about which Pinnacle president Charles Crawford is slightly more blunt. “It’s a bit like morning’s vitamin-enriched urine,” he says. His PR people prefer “sunshine yellow.”
The process by which Ungava gin is made is even more peculiar than its colour. An ice cider producer by trade, Crawford has a history of wonky tinctures—Pinnacle also produces maple-infused whiskey and a cider-brandy concoction. “Ice cider is a good product, but you can only make so much of it,” he says. “We decided to get into spirits, because there aren’t many that are uniquely Canadian.” In fact, Crawford wanted the gin to be truly, pre-colonially Canadian. He whittled down a list of 40 indigenous herbs, berries and flowers (“Nothing planted by Europeans”) to six ingredients, all found on the Ungava Peninsula in Nunavik: cloudberries; crowberries; Labrador tea; a Labrador tea cousin known as Ukiurtatuq, or “Arctic blend”; wild rosehips, which lend the gin its yellow colour; and of course juniper, without which Ungava wouldn’t be proper gin.
Every year, Crawford hires “these two guys from Kuujjuaq” (he’s unsure of their names) to pick the botanicals during Ungava’s four-week harvesting season, which usually begins in late August. The pair pack “a couple hundred kilos” of their pickings into clear, pillowy bags and send them 1,500 km straight south to Ungava’s production facility in Cowansville, about an hour’s drive east of Montreal. A neutral spirit made with locally grown corn is infused with the botanicals.
Ungava is sold in 17 countries. “It’s weird, we sell well in all these old British outposts like Kenya, Hong Kong and Gibraltar,” Crawford says. But, due to Canada’s terrifically obtuse, provincially controlled liquor laws, in Canada it’s only available in Alberta, B.C. and its native Quebec, where it’s most popular. Crawford says it has outsold Hendrick’s, the heady, cucumber-infused gin from Scotland. Curiously, gin in general is quite popular in distinctly un-Protestant Quebec. According to the Société des alcools du Québec, it accounts for 10 per cent of all spirit sales, outselling cognac.
But then vestiges of the former British reign abound here, in the names of many of its towns and the practice of bathing one’s French fries in vinegar. Though 95 per cent French, Quebec City is home to the Garrison Club, a posh, members-only association with snooker tables and “games rooms for bridge, domino and Scrabble players.” Former premier Jacques Parizeau came closest to separating Quebec from the rest of Canada. He is also Quebec’s most visible Anglophile, with a degree from the London School of Economics and his tendency to belt out a hearty “By Jove!” in perfect, upper-crust accented English.
For that matter, gin isn’t even British. It was invented in the Netherlands 150 years before the decades-long binge-drinking outbreak known as the Gin Craze ravaged Great Britain in the 18th century. It is a reminder that few cultures go unchanged. Much like gin itself, they become infused into one another—and with any luck, the result is as pleasant.