The Hunt for La Bagosse

The Hunt for La Bagosse

The elusive Acadian moonshine
Do we look like cops? That waitress is studying us like we're here to make a bust." Suddenly, she strides over, a mile-wide grin erasing her scowl. She recognises Blair - from TV she thinks - and she's giving us the royal treatment. "I'm Kim," she gushes, before suggesting Blair try a local amber ale. "Louis XVII from Petit Sault Brewery. Brewed in Edmundston." Her timing is excellent. Tonight, here at 'Le Deck' in Edmundston, New Brunswick, we're feeling quite deflated.

Official histories tell us that in 1793, King Louis XVII ascended to the throne of France while still a child, after his father, Louis XVI, was guillotined. Two and a half years later, young Louis himself died, head and body still attached, 'of scrofula.' Rumours of his escape, achieved by burying a royal stunt double in his unmarked grave, linger on. Such rumours have great currency in Edmundston where locals are convinced that fleeing France, King Louis XVII, incognito, spent the rest of his days spawning in nearby St. Hilaire.

Kim sets the beer named after Louis in front of us.

"What are you doing here in Edmundston?" She asks.

"Looking for La Bagosse," I reply innocently, still staring at the menu.

"Did you find any?"

"No, but we came close. We found three guys who knew everything about it, except where to get some."

In Petit-Paquetville, four hours east on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, artisanal Distillerie Fils du Roy use the name Grande Bagosse for a legal white spirit that they distil. However, this ersatz version - it's just vodka, really, and is in every liquor store - is not what we're after. We seek the genuine Acadian moonshine this appellation was coined for, and as we've discovered it's not easy for an outsider to find.

Pairings in Saint John

A week ago, Blair and I arrived in Saint John, our spirits high. Researching an upcoming publication on drinking culture in Canada called for visiting pubs in search of people and stories. It's amazing the things people tell you over a few drams. Especially at breakfast.

I fear I'm becoming jaded with matching food to whisky. Nonetheless, we begin our research by joining the local whisky crowd for a pairing event at The Bourbon Quarter in Saint John. Johanne McInnis and Craig Pinhey lead us through a range of whiskies and beers they have selected to complement Chef Lisa Riordon's menu. I'm instantly beguiled. From the start it is pure magic. Tante Blanche, a light ale from Les Brasseurs du Petit-Sault, gloriously complements the pleasures of Buffalo Trace Bourbon. This first New Brunswick match is sheer delight.

Fredericton: The power of small

About an hour and a half up the Saint John River lies Fredericton. Here we meet a Frederictonian on a mission, Frank Scott. Nearly two decades ago, his dreams of holding a whisky festival resonated with the whisky-friendly provincial liquor board. Today, his festival offers one of the best selections of whisky seen at any whisky show in Canada. This city of only 35,000 inhabitants hosts an annual four day event with rum and whisky dinners, master classes, and a perennially sold-out consumer tasting for 700 plus participants.

"Remember, we do not want to be the biggest festival in Canada," Scott reminds us. "We want to be the best!"

The power of small is a New Brunswick tradition. Nevertheless, festival goers spend nearly $50,000 an hour at the on-site liquor store where they can purchase the whiskies they have sampled, while their impressions of them are still fresh.

Blair parks himself by the festival's entrance with Corby's Frank Biskupek. He's doing whisky calisthenics with a spread that includes Glenlivet 18 and Aberlour A'Bunadh. As Biskupek engages a growing audience Blair samples furiously, all the while eyeing the store.

Dashed hopes in St Hilaire

But now? We're sitting in Le Deck, watched by Kim, feeling like empty-handed failures. We have driven two and a half hours further north along the Saint John River chasing a spirit that theoretically danced its last Lindy Hop with the repeal of Prohibition. So they would like us to think. This historic spirit is steeped in mystery and they want to keep it that way. They speak freely of illicit hooch, but only in the past tense.

The Saint John River wanders north then south, forming much of the eastern border between the US and Canada. In St. Hilaire, where it is narrow and shallow enough to wade across, the river became a major gateway for Prohibition era cross border bootleggers. Its remote location, and sparse populations on both sides of the border long fostered a tradition among St. Hilaire's French-speaking Acadian population of making moonshine. Oh, it's not whisky, and it never will be, with all the apples, potatoes and raisins typically added to the mash. But stories of its sweet fruity flavour and its bone-jarring palate have amplified it from a fascinating myth into our personal Holy Grail. We simply must have some. And we won't go until we get some.

Officially, real La Bagosse is distilled now, just once a year for a festival celebrating its Acadian heritage. When we arrive at La Municipalité de Saint Hilaire, festival organisers Réginald, Ghislaine and Georges greet us. We chit-chat about moonshining and learn how deeply the roots of La Bagosse run in Acadia. The conversation soon turns to local crime boss, Maxime Albert, who made his fortune during Prohibition. Terrified of Judgment Day, Albert cultivated divine connections. He bankrolled the parish church and three of his daughters became nuns. His parish priest, ever grateful, declared that bootlegging, although illegal, was not a sin.

We're eager to see their still, but first we must pay respects to the master. We head to the nearby cemetery, where with great ceremony we pour generous drams of Crown Royal Monarch on Albert's grave, toasting his memory. They're warming up to us.

Albert's former residence is a shambles of benches, pipes and wooden barrels. And there, right in the middle, sits a stainless steel vessel with a long copper tube poking out of it - the still. But what is this? It's taped shut! At the festival's end, Revenue officers formally 'seal' the still using little more than heavy-duty tape to which they dutifully affix their signatures. Only in Canada!

We hint broadly that we're ready to try some. Sadly, they didn't make it today. We know better. They didn't make it today because someone made a batch yesterday or plans on making some tomorrow. Our best hope has failed us.

La Bagosse!

This is why at day's end, we find ourselves at Le Deck bewailing our misfortune. Although the tables are deserted, a boisterous crowd has gathered at the bar. The mention of La Bagosse by a couple of clean-cut strangers though, brings conversation to a mid-sentence halt. Slowly, a burly guy in need of a shave, his snow pants and insulated linesman's parka contrasting sharply with his faux-fur Christmas-elf toque, ambles over.

"You lookin' for La Bagosse?" He's staring straight into my eyes.

"Yes," I stammer, "we're whisky writers doing a story."

"You find any?"

"No," I answer, a little too quickly.

"Wait here," he orders. "I'll be back."

We are about to leave when, 'Steve' - reappears, bottles in hand. One is a 'legal' festival bottle, the other enticingly, hand labelled.

"Where did you get those?" I venture.

"I don't know." He smirks. "You asked me to get some, I got some. Now I want something for it." Blair, half mad with delight, dashes out to the car and grabs our half-full bottle of Crown Royal Monarch. Steve balks.

"Sells for $75.00." Steve turns the bottle over in his hands. "OK!"

Racing home, we're not sure what to expect. But the sweet, majestic aromas tell us it's a highborn elixir - La Bagosse. As warne in St. Hilaire, one sip and we "can feel it right down to our legs."

Blair Phillips and Davin de Kergommeaux are travelling across Canada gathering stories for a book about Canada's drinking culture and history.

Travel Info

Getting to Fredericton

Air Canada flies non-stop to Fredericton and Saint John from Halifax, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa only. For all other points of departure, flight connections must be made through one of those cities. Fredericton and Saint John are both easily accessible by major highways from cities in eastern Canada and the US. It's 14 km / 15 minutes from the Fredericton airport to downtown. Public transportation, taxi and car rentals are available. Prices vary.

Where to stay in Fredericton

The Delta Fredericton makes the most sense if you plan to attend the New Brunswick Spirits Festival because all events happen there. The hotel is at 225 Woodstock Rd Fredericton, NB, E3B 2H8, Canada, +1 866 835 2352. Rates vary but we paid $167.00 per night.

New Brunswick Spirits Festival, The Delta Fredericton

The 20th Anniversary Festival runs from Tuesday 17 November 2015 until Saturday 21 November 2015 Getting to Edmundston, Edmundston is 277 km north west of the closest airport in Fredericton. From Fredericton drive 2 hours 40 minutes north on Trans Canada Highway, Route 2.

Where to stay in Edmundston

There are many hotels and motels in Edmundston with an average price of $133 per night. Most are within walking distance of the charming downtown core and a 15 minute drive to St. Hilaire.

La Bagosse Festival

Dates for August 2015. To be confirmed

Maxime Albert Complex, 2167 Centrale Street, Saint-Hilaire, New Brunswick E3V 4V8,

Getting there: By Car

From Downtown Edmundston travel east on St. Francois Street about 12 km. St. Francois Street becomes Centrale Street. The Maxime Albert Complex is on the corner of Centrale Street and Albert Street.

Tasting Notes

Distillerie Fils du Roy Grande Bagosse, 40% ABV

Pure, simple vodka with dormant sweet marshmallow. Polished, squeaky-clean starches. Fades to an accordion finish of tingling alcohol and a syrup sweetness.

Bagosse Maxime Albert 2013 Festival Edition, 40% ABV

Alkaline with white chocolate violently penetrating very ripe earthy apples. Sweet and brackish. Fragmented with a peck of soy sauce. Majestic soulful new make.

La Bagosse (prohibited), 80% ABV

12-gauge Napalm. Hot spicy fruits upfront fade to sweet cinnamon candy hearts and white sugar then back to a muzzled Thrills chewing gum's soapy sear.

Crown Royal Monarch, 40% ABV

Vanilla, cloves, ginger, white pepper, and sour rye with red cedar, sweet lilacs, dark fruits, and green apples. Butterscotch, Canada balsam and cleansing citrus pith.

Aberlour A'Bunadh, Batch, 47 60.7% ABV

Deep muscular Olorosso sherry strengthened by dried fruit, oak and breakfast cereal. Citrus mingles in and out of this colossal whisky. Hearty, robust and confident.

The Glenlivet 18 Years Old, 43% ABV

Rich spicy oak with honey and simmered apple. Bursting with juicy raisins sliding through a cabinet of spices including clove and a pinch of nutmeg.
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