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Cirka Distilleries & The Next Frontier

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Paul Cirka, founder of CIRKA Distilleries, the first grain-to-bottle distillery open to the public in Montreal, is confident and ready for Canadian craft distilling to come of age. “We’re looking beyond the pandemic; looking forward. A lot more people are embracing craft and small producers both locally and domestically. If anything, we have gotten stronger.”

Across the board, consumer demand for locally produced products has increased, and so has the expectation of transparency around ingredient origin, production methods, and the people behind the brands they support. “Even at the restaurant franchise or chain level, our clients are reporting that consumers are actually asking for the venue’s local spirit portfolio,” says Paul. “It’s being driven bottom up, not just top-down. That leads us to believe in the longevity of demand for local.”

Craft and local are universal bedfellows, and both concepts inform the distillery’s entire sourcing and production methodology. CIRKA’s flagship gin portfolio provides a balanced reflection of Quebec’s growing craft gin craze, and of its mastery. “Gin gives you a really broad spectrum of expression which was super important to me,” Paul shares. “As a craft distiller, you want to be able to make something memorable, and that allows you to be distinctive and differentiate yourself in the market.”

“There are 171 gins in on the shelf, made in Quebec,” asserts Gizmo Sirois, CIRKA brand ambassador. “But only two per cent are produced “origin Quebec” and from that, there are only seven or eight that are actually distilling from grain. Paul is the number one, and the trailblazer on that within the industry.”

CIRKA’s Navy Strength gin won gold at the 2020 Gin Masters in London, and while it is true navy strength at 57.1%, it is surprisingly smooth with boosted citrus notes of sweet orange and lemongrass. Their GIN375, crafted in honour of Montreal’s 375th anniversary, won the prestigious title of “Best Flavoured Gin” for Canada at the World Gin Awards in 2019 and features indigenous Québec botanicals including plants from the Boreal forest, fruit from the Eastern Townships and honey from the Laurentian Mountains.

Paul is equally as devoted to nurturing their whisky portfolio. “We do want to be known as great whisky makers,” he admits. “There’s no question about that. Canada has a long history of producing whisky. Over the decades we’ve produced great volumes, but not necessarily great whisky. There’s no reason whatsoever, that we shouldn’t be able to create really distinctive, memorable, regional whiskies. And that’s what we’re trying to build and explore. We’re trying to make whisky that stands up to the best and is memorable. Where people say, “I remember my first sip of CIRKA whisky and it was a great moment.” That’s what I hope someone will write about one day.”

Both Paul and Gizmo have confidence in thelongevity of recent changes in consumer behaviour and demand. “We do predict that by 2024, the whisky category will outpace vodka sales globally,” Paul affirms, “and will become the number one spirit.”Gizmo is confident that a classic cocktail revival is on the horizon and those operators should take note and get ahead of it. “The classics are coming back. The obvious trend had been around tequila and mezcal because so many American superstars joined in. They used to forage the blue agave plant at seven years and now they’re doing it at four years and its really banging up the plant, so the price of tequila and mezcal is going to go up. Hence opening the door again to gin and whisky to stay on-trend.”

Gizmo is passionate about the importance of working directly with operators to help them optimize their relationship and their revenue. “Have us in. Let us meet your people and share our stories. People think that we don’t have the time or the interest to meet them. But for me, sitting at a table, sipping and talking to people who are actually interested in a way better investment than sending free t-shirts and bottles.”

Gizmo sees the relationship between craft distilleries and clients as true partnerships and is eager to work with operators to co-create a custom experience that delivers. “Every bar looks for something a little different to engage and grow their audience. The best way for us to engage with you is personally. Otherwise, you’re just getting bottles. And a storyline. But if we work together, we all grow.”

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