The road ended suddenly at the steps of the towering, twin-spired Saint-Augustin church in the small Acadian Peninsula town of Paquetville, Canada. Davin wasn’t here to seek spiritual guidance, but he sure could have used some. He’d lost his way while searching for an even tinier Northern New Brunswick town called Petit-Paquetville, where devout whiskey maker Sébastien Roy plies his trade. He founded Distillerie Fils du Roy here in 2011, 132 years after Saint-Augustin was built in 1879, and eight Roy generations after the British began deporting Acadians from the region in 1755.
Roy’s passion for distilling and his drive to celebrate his past began when he was 14 and eyeing the jar his mother used to pickle eggs, an eastern Canadian delicacy. “I started making alcohol a long time before internet and computers,” says Roy in a charming Chiac-Acadian-French accent. “My parents had encyclopedias and that’s where I read about fermentation. The book explained that if you mix water, sugar and yeast in a closed container, you will have fermentation.”
Roy did precisely that in the pickled-egg jar, then hid the container in his bedroom closet, astonished that by the next day the liquid was moving. “I was amazed I was able to create life with kitchen products.”
But, the possibility of going blind drinking the brew frightened him. “It wasn’t until I went to university that I learned when you ferment sugar, you will not become blind.” Roy pursued his higher education, fermenting beer and wine in his apartment while working in a brew-your-own shop. He didn’t collect a paycheck; he worked on the barter system, exchanging hours for products. “That’s where I experimented with basic fermentation,” he recalls.
After graduating from university, Roy started a brewery, working with a microbiologist who helped expand his understanding of fermentation. But a trip to Prague changed everything. “The first time I tasted something that really resonated with me was 2007 when I tried absinthe in the Czech Republic.”
When Roy came back to Canada, he went straight to his garden and pulled up all the vegetables, replacing them with wormwood, anise and absinthe botanicals. In 2009, he registered a still then began researching how to create a base spirit. The New Brunswick economy was in a tailspin and by 2011, Roy’s mother had concerns about her job in the printing industry.
All around him Roy, a government public servant, saw job cuts. Time for plan B. “I sold the brewery and opened a distillery with my mother,” he remembers.
Together, they took microdistilling to a literal level, starting in a building with a production area of just 18.5 x 9 feet.
The two worked day jobs during the week then would distil on weekends non-stop, one asleep on lawn chairs while the other watched the still. Any revenues were reinvested into more equipment and enlarging the distillery. Still, that feeling of uncertainty resonated with him more than dribbling absinthe over a sugar cube did. One of Roy’s goals became supporting New Brunswick’s economy so people wouldn’t have to leave to find work. More job opportunities are on the horizon now with the construction of New Brunswick’s first malt house and
a laboratory for producing yeast. “We will have a better capacity to analyse and completely understand what is going on with flavour development,” says Roy.
Roy also strives to have his spirits reflect the nature of the land, what whiskey makers elsewhere are beginning to call terroir. “All of the farmers who supply our grain are within 5 km of the sea. We find that gives the malt a good mineral
quality,” says Roy.
New Brunswick also has a rich Irish heritage even within the French community. During the 19th century, decades before the great famine, the Acadians shared the land and worked cooperatively with Irish immigrant families. In a tip of the hat to the large Irish community still found in the area, he spells whiskey with an “e”, and so, for this story, will we.
For his whiskey spirit, Davin watched Roy pass the beer wash through small Portuguese alembic pot stills fitted with coil condensers to produce an oily spirit. These are real old-school stills. To charge them, the head is completely removed, then when the still is full, the head is glued back in place using rye-flour paste. Thomas Molson would be proud. This is how the Upper Canada whiskey maker rolled in 1821.
Once it is distilled, Roy fills the spirits into new oak or first-fill ex-bourbon barrels and immediately notes a proposed bottling date on the barrel head. Release dates are chosen anywhere from 3 to 25 years, to coincide with Acadian historical events. As he was dancing from one cask to the next, eyes animated and arms a-whirl, it was evident his head was pasted on with new-school enthusiasm. Roy describes his whiskeys all as unicorns meant for small releases, either as single cask offerings or small blends.
For one such release, called Congrès Mondial Acadien – Whiskey Acadien, Roy filled 415 bottles, one for each of the 415 years of l’Acadie, numbering each bottle by date from 1604 up to 2019. “Bottle number 1755 was reserved for the Governor General of Canada’s representative. I chose bottle 1755, as a reminder of the trials, history and suffering experienced by the Acadian people during the Great Upheaval (deportations).”
With the road to becoming an ambassador for Acadian culture paved by previous releases, Roy went to the arts community for a label. Acadian artist Janel Chantal created an image based on symbols for the colours in the Acadian flag. According to Roy, the red represents the suffering, white is the innocence of manners that the Acadian people should strive to preserve and blue is their faith in the future. A gold star rising above is a rallying point – the star of the sea.
It isn’t these whiskey stories that have earned Roy his reputation as a mad scientist though. It’s his experiments with unconventional whiskey making techniques. “I hate doing the same thing – to produce something following the same routine,” says Roy. “I prefer to create; that’s my real passion. Everything that I do, I ask how can I approach it differently, how can I create something with that flavour, or if I mix this method with another, what will happen?” For instance, the distillery makes a variety of fruit brandies, including strawberry, pear and raspberry. Then he ages these for 6 to 12 months in new oak, not to create another product line, but to season the casks for whiskey.
He’s also pioneering a new whiskey-making technique, and of course there’s a story behind it.
When the United Empire Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783, many locals weren’t happy with the influx and demanded a new government. The idea was to create a new province called New Ireland using a large chunk of Nova Scotia’s land. However, King George III held the German title Duke of Brunswick. To make sure the Duke was on board with the plan, the name “Ireland” was scrapped and the new province was instead called New Brunswick. Defiantly, Roy calls his whiskey New Ireland.
To begin, he distils 5000 litres of malt beer to produce 1600 litres of 35% alcohol, which he then redistils to 200 litres at 70%. After aging it for at least three years, he employs an unusual method to bring it down to bottling proof. Rather than proofing the whiskey with water, he uses beer made from the same recipe as the original spirit was distilled from. This imbues the whiskey with a freshness loaded with flavours of banana, pear and apple.
Hence the mad scientist descriptor, but when you dig deeper into his persona, he just wants to make a good whiskey and honour his heritage.
Roy also uses his spirits to bring significant figures in Acadian history back into the public eye. “A lot of the individuals who made their mark on Acadian history, they don’t have a face. There are no portraits of them or written records of what they looked like,” says Roy. So, he reanimates these historical Acadian figures with whiskeys that depict what they could have looked like. Just as he did with sugar, water and yeast in a pickle jar, he’s bringing them back to life, one name and one barrel at a time.
The Road to L’Acadie Whiskey
Richelieu international Single Malt
Beautiful toasted cereal notes swirled with sweet baking spices. A young effervescent malt with exotic and preserved fruits. The long finish pops with dry cinnamon.
Appalachia’s Canadian Rye
Rolling fruity rye grain with clean oak. There is a rugged spice quality to this bright rye that’s balanced by mountains of dried orange peel.
Congres Mondial Acadien Whiskey Acadien
Maple sugars and pulled maple taffy with a malted beer caramel backbone. The palate is lush, an Acadian kiss of grains with a crescendo of heat.
40th Anniversaire Conseil Economique du Nouveau Brunswick Single Malt
A sharp nose of wet hay, oak shavings and malt. Char on the palate is dusted with brown sugar. A full circle finish