Why Quebec's First Single Malt Isn't a Whisky... Yet
It’s important to keep in mind that Quebec’s liquor market is controlled by a state-run monopoly.
Janos Sivo's distillery is located on a farm along the Canada-US border, in Franklin, Quebec.
"Two kilometers south of here, this would be a whisky," he says, pointing to a bottle of Quebec's first single malt.
In Canada, a whisky needs to be aged for three years in oak barrels in order to be called a whisky. Two kilometers south of Sivo's farm, in the Land of the Free, no such requirement exists; as long as the age is indicated on the bottle (but it's only considered a "straight whiskey" after two years).
Because the first batch of Sivo's single malt—made exclusively with Frontenac barley grains from Quebec—was only aged for nine months, instead of the obligatory three years, it can't technically be called Quebec's first single malt whisky. But that doesn't mean that it isn't drawing a lot of attention in a province known more for wine than whisky, despite having a climate that is way more hospitable to grain than to grapes.
It's important to keep in mind here that Quebec's liquor market is not what you would call a free market system. It is controlled by a state-run monopoly called the Société des alcools du Québec, or SAQ.
"The only legal buyer in Quebec is the SAQ. I don't sell to anyone else," Sivo says. "According to Quebec legislation and denominations, whisky has to be aged at least three years in oak barrels. My product has only been in there for two years. Because of how much the humidity and the temperature changes here, it ages much faster, but the legislation doesn't care how fast the aging process is."
But when the monolithic SAQ is interested in buying a product, as it was with Sivo's single malt, one adapts. So, Sivo bottled a batch of nine-month-old "whisky" and opted to call it "L'Essence du Single-Malt" in order to get a feel for how receptive the Quebec market would be to it.
"I released the single malt after nine months to have the name on the market, to be honest. It also gave us the time to learn the bottling and filtration temperature. The first shipment to the SAQ wasn't even filtered; there were particles floating inside," Sivo says with a laugh. "But a lot of people appreciated it because of the taste."
One of those people is Jean-Sébastien Michel, a mixologist and the owner of Alambika, a boutique specializing in cocktail gear and Japanese knife-ware.
"I love younger whiskies in cocktails, they add a lot of freshness," Michel says. "It's also a great snapshot of the evolution of the product. Because it had to be commercialized, what's available on shelves right now is young. But we have to appreciate it for what it is, which is a very young whisky, and compare it to other very young whiskies.
"Quebec is a Nordic land. Making wine here will be a challenge until Florida becomes a desert. The raw materials available to us are grains, aromatic herbs, and small fruits. And people are getting fed up with industrialized agriculture. [Sivo is] putting the terroir first and bringing his own cultural angle to it."
This is a perfect storm for a gentleman farmer like Sivo to swoop in and make his mark on a largely undeveloped industry. And it's not just grains that he's experimenting with.
Aside from Essence du Single malt, Sivo also makes a rye, moonshine, herbal liqueur, and fruit-based eau-de-vies. These not only make full use of aforementioned aromatic herbs and small fruits, but harken back to the time and place where he first learned to make alcohol.
When he was a boy growing up in Hungary, Sivo's grandparents made pálinka, or fruit-based brandies, in their home in Tököl, a small village on island of Csepel, 40 kilometres south of Budapest.
"I learned how to make alcohol a long time ago, in Hungary," Sivo says. "It was illegal and it's still illegal, but it's still being done." In fact, when local police did stop by his grandparents' home, he recounts, it wasn't to stop them—it was to pick up some booze for their own consumption.
"It's a big part of the culture in Hungary, especially in the villages. People make their own alcohol—no one would actually buy their alcohol, except from a neighbour. The first thing in the morning is take a shot; it's very much part of the culture."
In modern-day Quebec, things aren't so slack. Distilling alcohol at home is illegal and for Sivo, who was looking for a post-retirement hobby after decades working as a successful telecom executive (including 12 years as a VP for Quebec media giant Vidéotron), that meant starting his own distillery. It also turned into something far bigger than a hobby.
"I wanted to do something after I retired. Alcohol was an interest that I've always had and now I had the opportunity to go after my interests."
Among those interests was concocting an herbal liqueur that could hold up against the classics. Named Shaman, it evokes imagery of spiritual experiences and psychoactive properties that are often associated with excessive quantities of Chartreuse, Jägermeister, and absinthe.
"Shaman is an herbal liqueur. It would go into the category of Jägermeister, but it's different. It has less sugar in it. It's an acquired taste, but those who know herbal liqueurs like it. I will not say what the recipe is or how many herbs are inside, but you will love it and find it magical."
Jean-Sébastien Michel is certainly excited. "It's definitely going to strike a chord in Quebec because every cocktail geek sleeps with a Chartreuse bottle under their pillow," he says. "And having a québécois version of a European-style herbal liqueur, I think, is really cool."
Still, Sivo's focus remains on the brown stuff.
"My main interest is whisky. It's a complex product, it's an exciting product, and it's not easy to make. It takes time and you have to be careful what you do with it. It's a great challenge to make good whisky in Quebec. Quebec has everything we need to have a whisky industry—except the legislation."
While Janos Sivo, and many other distillers in the province, await legislative reform that would make Quebec a more competitive place for the spirits industry, his single malt inches closer to becoming a "real" whisky. With only a year left to go before it hits the three year mark, the future is bright in Franklin, Quebec.
Sivo, like his single malt, continues to mature and is working closely with grain farmers on smoking barley that could be used for Quebec's first peated whisky.
But he'll also be the first to admit that it's not exactly hard to be a pioneer in Quebec, at least where liquor is concerned. "It's not difficult to be the first to do something in the whisky business in Quebec, mainly because of legislation."
Legislation aside, Michel says that frontiersmen like Sivo, who are willing to deal with a harsh climate, both in terms of market and temperature, must be embraced and celebrated, exclaiming, "Vive Monsieur Sivo!"