Drinks with Andrea Fujarczuk from Northern Landings Spirits
I first met Andrea Fujarczuk almost 10 years ago on a press trip with the Metaxa people in Greece. She recently dropped me a line with an update on what she’s been up to these days; namely, acting as Head Distiller for Ontario’s Northern Landings Distillery and teaching artisan distilling at Niagara College.
[ed. Note: Last fall, Furjarczuk and her husband César Lefebvre created a uniquely Canadian cranberry-flavoured gin called Ginberry.]
You started off as a “wine person”. What made you gravitate towards distilling?
Andrea Fujarczuk: After moving to the UK to get an MBA focusing on the Global Food Industry, I worked in London, England for Moet Hennessy across their portfolio including brands like Belvedere vodka, Hennessy cognac and Glenmorangie scotch. I started gaining an appreciation for spirits and the art behind them. At the time, craft distilling was an industry which still hadn’t erupted in Canada. I realized that living in London, I had the opportunity to learn from local world-renowned experts and took advantage of that opportunity to move into craft distilling.
Where/how did you learn the ins-and-outs of distilling?
Andrea Fujarczuk: I started working at Thames Distillers in South London. Although not very well known by the public, it could be the largest producer of gin brands in the world. Lead by Charles Maxwell, eighth generation distiller, the contract distillery company develops, creates and bottles brands that are shipped around the world – everything from a 60-percent oak-aged gin shipped to Japan, to Ford’s gin, which was recently acquired by Brown Foreman’s. In terms of learning about gin, there was no better place. Now I get to use what I have learned overseas and teach it to my students in the Artisan Distilling Program at Niagara College.
Andrea Fujarczuk: After living in England for seven years, we really developed a new appreciation for gin. The Brits are absolutely gin crazy. There are so many different styles and flavours you can make with the spirit and we were inspired to create a truly Canadian gin.
Why settle on a flavoured gin – and why cranberry?
Andrea Fujarczuk: When we saw how gin was taking off in the UK and how it started gaining traction in the US, we thought it would great to create a flavoured gin that’s truly Canadian. We thought of many different flavours, but ultimately, we thought nothing is more Canadian than a locally grown red berry – the cranberry. It’s a berry that we love to drink in the summertime, be thankful with at thanksgiving and celebrate over Christmas. It’s our colour and embedded into our traditions.
How many batches did you make before you finally felt you had the recipe down?
Andrea Fujarczuk: Developing a recipe for a gin is a lot more complicated than anyone thinks. It’s like baking a cake; you can’t really know how it will turn out until the cake is fully baked. That’s just the gin part – then, if you’re making a flavoured gin, you have to make sure it pairs perfectly and at the right balance. Kind of like adding the icing on the cake. It took months to create the perfect gin, but in the end, we were very confident the product was both a juniper-forward gin with added cranberry flavours.
Though it’s a “cranberry gin,” it’s still very much “gin” – the cranberry aspect is, in my opinion, rather subtle. How does your GinBerry differ in flavour, and perhaps in terms of production, from other flavoured gin?
Andrea Fujarczuk: The definition of a gin is a juniper-led spirit. If the dominant flavour is something other than juniper, it is technically not really a gin anymore but rather a flavoured vodka. Additionally, the Canadian consumer has been trained for years to taste synthetic or “natural” flavourings, which are quite potent and skewed in terms of odour and taste. Mother Nature is much more subtle in its gifts; that’s why when you taste GinBerry, it is not an overwhelming or upfront flavour of cranberry.
Lastly, being a gin purist, and learning about gin in London, England, we really wanted to keep the integrity of a gin. Juniper should always “drive the bus” when it comes to gin, any flavourings should be more like backup singers to the main star. And just like in an orchestra, the finished product needs to be balanced.
Where do you source your cranberries from?
Andrea Fujarczuk: All of our cranberries are sourced locally in Muskoka. Part of what makes us unique it that we don’t add any “flavourings,” colourings, sugar or preservatives. We believe in using raw real ingredients and allowing the flavours to show themselves organically. Also, the colour from the spirit is 100 percent from the skins of the cranberries rather than from a bottle.
Attempting to open and operate a new distillery in Ontario has got to be a pretty red-tape-infested proposition. What challenges – physical and legal – have you had to contend with?
Getting a licence, although expensive and time consuming, isn’t the hard part…it’s putting everything together as a package that works cohesively that’s really difficult. Most people don’t realize that spirits producers pay a much higher tax than both wine and beer, so our margins are extremely small. When you start off, you don’t have economies of scale, the marketing budgets or the connections that the big players have, so it’s constantly an uphill battle.
How is GinBerry best served?
Andrea Fujarczuk: One of the ways we love to drink it is on ice with a wedge of lime. Because GinBerry has no added sugar, it’s up to the consumer to determine how they best enjoy the product. We do love it in a dry martini or in a simple gin and tonic. If you fancy yourself as a cocktail aficionado, GinBerry is delicious in a Negroni.
Without letting the cat out of the bag as it were, what can we look forward to from NLD in the future? Do you intend to stick to flavoured spirits?
We’re hoping to expand soon but whatever we do, we want to do something that no one else is doing. We want to stay true to our brand and work with no added flavourings, sugar or preservative and we also want to stay original. We hope to unveil our next products soon!
Where can people buy GinBerry?
Andrea Fujarczuk: We’re currently available at the LCBO, and at the Manitoba Liquor Stores.