World-class spirits from Northern Ontario grains
I first heard of Rheault Distillery from friends who were boasting about their excellent, Northern Ontario-made “Loon Vodka.” I knew that this was one story I needed to tell and see for myself. I was not disappointed!
Marcel and Mirelle Rheault warmly welcomed us to their home, which is also home to Rheault Distillery. They have been licensed since 2009, and have been a tourist destination for the Hearst area since.
The still at Rheault Distillery is in itself jaw-dropping when you see it in person. It’s a thing of beauty with its soaring size, copper, brass, and stainless-steel parts with many gauges. It’s a cross between a piece of art and a fully functioning machine that creates award-winning alcoholic beverages. It was built and shipped from Germany, taking 13 months for delivery. Marcel explained, “I had arranged for a professional in the distilling industry from BC to come and help me assemble the still. However, after several unexpected delays, I decided that I would assemble it myself, and it works perfectly!” I think that helps to explain the self-sufficiency and tenacity it takes to be an entrepreneur!
Marcel took us through a full tour of the operation. It begins where the raw material (wheat or barley) goes into the downstairs tanks and is mixed with water, heated, and then three different kinds of enzymes are added to make alcohol. All of which are then pumped upstairs to the distiller.
Marcel then went into great detail and talked about the science and art it takes to produce their products. It takes several hours to make one batch, depending on what type of alcohol is being made. He explained that he likes to use Northern Ontario wheat, because it has more starch and sugar, than wheat from other areas. The vodka is actually distilled four times and in the last stage, milk (and the calcium it contains) is used to remove the negative ions, followed by a final wash before bottling. Using milk is an ancient technique, one he found through research. Other distillers use charcoal in this final stage.
Marcel told us, “I learned the art of distilling from a master distiller in Lansing, Michigan. I also spent more than two years researching and learning this art.” Even with all his training, he noted that it’s the hands-on experience, and understanding of what to look for at each stage, that has made all the difference in producing such a great product.
During the tour I learned about a very interesting piece of distilling history: before they became licensed, regulations favoured the big conglomerate distillers, so Marcel lobbied the government to recognize small-batch distillers. To make a long story short, he was successful in his lobbying efforts and as a result, Ontario went from just eight distillers to over 32, thanks to the hard work done by Marcel Rheault.
Not only does Rheault Distillery make Loon Vodka and Sinful Cherry Liqueur, both available at LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) stores, since 2014, but they also make whiskey (made from local barley), rum, port, and other types of liqueur, which are available directly at their distillery in Hearst. The port is put in French oak barrels to give it a distinctive taste. Their liqueur is made with real fruit like cherries, apples, pears, and different kinds of berries. It’s macerated and the time it takes to ferment depends on the type of fruit used for a particular batch. We were offered taste samples of each product and I have to say that all were simply excellent.
Marcel was very proud to point out their awards, including one from LCBO, which rates Loon Vodka as their “purest vodka” over and above imports. They were happy to also receive a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. They’re very proud to have received the China Spirits and Wine Awards, which bestowed them a Double Gold medal for Loon Vodka and a Gold for their Sinful Cherry Liqueur.
As mentioned, the Rheaults sell at their outlet in Hearst which is also their home. They are open seven days per week and will do a tour if you call beforehand. Before we arrived, they just did a tour for participants of a big motorbike rally that was taking place that day. Earlier in the week, they completed a 50-person tour for an airplane club, including people from all over Canada and the U.S. The local tourism centre has Rheault Distillery on its “What to Do in Hearst” list.
I asked Marcel what they are planning for the future of Rheault Distillery. He replied, “we are looking at franchising our operation in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, which will create new destination distilleries.” Now, that’s something to look forward to! In the world of local distilleries, this business has nowhere to go but up!
Loon Vodka: clear, water-white; intense earthy and leafy aromas reminiscent of grappa; full and flavourful with a long earthy/briney finish.
Whiskey: not for the faint of heart, perfect for the fan of Irish-style whiskey or the rye lover.
Liqueur: raspberry and cherry liqueurs are sinfully delicious created with pure, fresh fruit and vodka, leaving a sweet and fruity flavour for the adventurous.