Have you ever been to Atlantic Canada – the eastern part of Canada that borders on the Atlantic Ocean and includes the four provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island?
Not only is it absolutely gorgeous, but for our purposes today, the folks there are serving up some great cocktails using some of Atlantic Canada’s best ingredients. We are meeting two of those folks today.
First up, we head to Newfoundland and Labrador to chat with Dan Meades, co-founder of The Third Place Cocktail Co. After traveling all over Africa for work, Dan developed a love of Cinchona bark, the main ingredient in tonic water. Returning home, he just couldn’t find the exact product he wanted for his Gin and Tonic, so decided to create his own. Thus, The Third Place Cocktail Co. was born.
Then, we jet off to New Brunswick to meet Sebastien Roy, founder of Distillerie Fils du Roy, as well as, master-distiller and master-brewer. His story began with his first sip of absinthe, well, maybe a bit before that. His love of spirits began when his family bought him an encyclopedia, remember those?
This episode originally aired on January 19, 2021.
You can listen to this episode here, or any of your favorite podcatchers.
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Dan and Sebastien. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
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Susan: I have a delicious cocktail in front of me. It’s my Third Place Cocktail Co. Tonic, gin, and some soda water and I want to know how this got into my glass.
Dan: I’ve got one too. Cheers. It’s kind of a long story. I’ll make it as interesting for folks as I can. I went to university here in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. While I was a student, I made a living playing the guitar I was in kind of, not very good cover bands in not very good bars, drinking not very good beer for a long time. Then, at some point, I realized that the beer was really inefficient as a method of the goal of drinking at that time.
I switched over to gin when I was about 20 years old and I got exceedingly good at drinking Gin and Tonic. I was just very well-practiced, if nothing else. I just loved Gin and Tonic and, to this day, it’s my favorite cocktail. Certainly, the cocktail that I’ve had the most in life has been Gin and Tonic.
Fast forward a few years, I was no longer a musician. I was living and working overseas in West Africa, doing some development work.
Susan: Hold on, hold on. Now the Gin and Tonic of your peers, were you the only person drinking Gin and Tonic?
Dan: Yeah. There’s a big Rum and Coke culture here. Then, later in more recent years, the cocktail scene in Newfoundland and Labrador has just exploded and we’ve got some remarkable cocktail bars here. People who are doing some really beautiful imaginative cocktail work, but back then, certainly in bars I was playing in, it was a bottle of beer or Rum and Coke.
If they were pouring any other Gin and Tonics that night, it certainly wasn’t for a man. It would have been considered a woman’s drink, and this isn’t that long ago, right? I’m 40. We’re not talking about that long ago.
Susan: No, no, it really isn’t that long. Everyone says that here in London, it was the grannies’ drink. Every grandmother drank it. I didn’t even know what a Gin and Tonic was until I was like 30.
Dan: Right, for me, I was just trying to get away from some of the sugar, frankly. I was finding, with the dark Rum and Coca-Cola, I was getting these brutal hangovers and trying to go to university the next day. I just couldn’t do it all it. I guess it never even occurred to me to stop drinking quite so much at night, while I was playing the guitar.
I switched to Gin and Tonic. Still, that balance of sweetness and bitterness and botanicals, it’s still, as far as I’m concerned, it’s tough to get better than a Gin and Tonic. It has a perfect flavor pairing.
Susan: I so agree. Now, you said that something took you to the far reaches of the world. What was that?
Dan: I was doing some development work for the Canadian International Development Agency. I was living in a place called Ghana, which is in West Africa, in Sub-Saharan West Africa. I was traveling through that part of the world quite a bit: Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone , and this is my mid-twenties.
In that part of the world, if you catch malaria, which is not an uncommon thing, it’s a scary thing, certainly, but lots of mosquitoes are biting you and sometimes you catch them there. If that happens, generally speaking, if you’re in any type of city, not even a big city, it’s really easy to get great medicine and they just treat you with some malaria meds and off you go and you’re okay.
You feel pretty rotten for a week or two, but you’re generally okay. I was a little unfortunate. I was pretty far a field in Northern Ghana, the first time I got malaria and it was a little bit tough.
Susan: You got it?
Dan: Oh, yeah. Twice. The first time I just got really ill and it was a little complicated to try to get me to somewhere a little bit safer. There were these really remarkable people were taking care of me and, in that part of the world, they know that quinine obviously is an anti-malarial drug. If you go to a hospital today, or if you’re going to take a prophylactic for malaria, you’d take a quinine tablet basically.
Quinine naturally comes from the Cinchona tree and it grows not naturally in Sub-Saharan West Africa, but because of the way the world was colonized by British sailors, they planted quinine everywhere they went. Planted Cinchona rather for the quinine everywhere they went.
I’m a 24 year old guy with this monster, malaria fever chewing on Cinchona tree bark to try to get some quinine and to start feeling a little better, until they can get me out a few days later to a place where I can get some better meds. It was a remarkable experience and scary at the time.
But you’re a 24 year old dude, you’re invincible, nothing, nothing can really hurt you. But I did remember that just unbelievable bitterness of this plant that I was just chewing on. I kind of put between my cheek and my gums, the way you would, the colon duct or some other things.
I had this sort of relationship with the plant and also a relationship with the drink. We’ll skip the history lesson, but Gin and Tonic came from quinine syrup on ships, which was a malarial cure, as well as limes on those same ships, which was meant to stop scurvy, and then gin, which was basically just meant to stop the sailors from mutiny.
All of that together, you got the first Gin and Tonic at about 1802. I was great at drinking Gin and Tonic, and I had this relationship with this crazy plant where quinine came from. Then I moved back to North America, eventually back here to my home of St. John’s, Newfoundland, after many years of traveling. I was still pretty good at drinking gin back then and I had been drinking better and better gin, because I traveled the world.
I had an interest in cocktails. I would go talk to distillers and I’d find interesting gins from around the world to drink. It got to the point that I had stopped drinking tonic completely.
Susan: It’s amazing that after eating the bark that you would still like tonic. You weren’t looking for a different mixer. You know how sometimes there’s some herbal spirits that may taste like the cough syrup you had when you’re young, especially if they’re cherry flavored, you take one whiff of it and you think I’m never going to have that. That is horrible. I’m surprised that didn’t happen with you and tonic.
Dan: It was the opposite – that every tonic I had after that experience, it felt too light and sweet and it wasn’t bitter enough. I felt like it was just killing the gin. I was drinking better and better gin, but still buying the yellow cans of tonic water from the grocery store. I eventually gave up on the tonic completely and I was drinking gin on its own or sometimes with ice.
I moved back here to St. John’s and I had this memory of this plant and I was thinking, gosh, there’s got to be better tonic, and there are some good, carbonated tonics out there. None of them at the time was available here in St. John’s. I was buying them from friends in the UK, shipping them over and doing all kinds of foolishness. Then I thought, I bet I can make something just for fun. I had some friends in Peru send me up some Cinchona tree bark, which is where that source of quinine grows originally.
They were in the coffee business down there. Cinchona was a bit of a weed for them on their coffee plantations. They just, as a gift, sent me up some of this tree bark and I started messing around with it on my stove, just to see what I could do. It’s unbelievably bitter. I mean, Cinchona’s tree bark is literally the second, most bitter natural substance in the world.
Susan: Did you just pour tons of sugar in it, sugar and water?
Dan: I was just boiling it on the stove at first to try to get this bitterness and this beautiful, dark mahogany color out of it. Then thinking about what goes great with gin. What do I like the flavors of – lavender and lemongrass and citrus and how do I want it? What about if I’m making a Gin and Tonic myself?
What do I want it to feel like? What do I want it to be like? After a few thousand tries just for fun, one and two cups at a time on a stove, I came up with what I thought was really kind of tasty. I decided that this was a perfect gift for my pals for Christmas I put it in Mason jars with a sticker of my face on it.
I gave it to my pals as a Christmas gift that was the full extent of the goal. I wasn’t trying to start a business. I was just like, Hey, this is fun to drink at home. I’ve got my pals around the world and here, who would enjoy it. I just put it in Mason jars and sent it off to them.
Susan: How much did you make?
Dan: Oh, a few liters then. I mean, I guess it would have been. When I think back now, I think it was 15 Mason jars for 15 friends around the world, some here at home and just off it goes with Christmas note saying, “Hey, here’s how you mix it, give it a go. Let me know what you think.”
Susan: Did you ever take it with you to a bar because you wanted gin from the bar?
Dan: I am in sufferable in that way. Absolutely, I have done that and asked for a Gin and Soda and then just poured an ounce of tonic from a little flask. While other people keep gin in their little hip flask, I was keeping tonic in it. I’ve got some friends from the musician days who are in the restaurant and bar business here in St John’s. They enjoyed this idea and some of them were on that Christmas list. They were kind of in on the gag and really liked the product. One of the people that I gave this out to as a Christmas gift owned a series of retail stores across the country and it had nothing to do with drinks.
They’re high-end kitchen knife stores, and they’re beautiful knives. These stores are wonderful . He called me up and he said, “Hey, I really want to sell this in my stores.” I said, “Kevin, it’s not a business. I made it on my stove at home, leave me alone. I got enough to do.” He called a few months later and he said, “Hey, can I get some more, can you make me a big batch of tonic? I’m all out and I really want some more and I want you to reconsider selling it to me.” I said,” Kevin, I’m not interested at all.” Then he said, “How about if I bought the recipe from you? “Ooh” I said, “what do you mean?” He said, “What if I bought the tonic recipe and then I flew you up here to Calgary and you could teach my staff to make it. And then and then it’s not yours anymore. It’s mine.”
Susan: Did a little bell go off, like if someone is willing to buy it!
Dan: Gosh, more than that. I said that that sounds great. Let’s make a deal. You just come up with a number, send a contract, let’s do this. A couple of days later, I ran into Chris Smith who was an old university pal and is still a dear friend, who’s now the other owner of the Third Place Cocktail Company.
Susan: Oh, my gosh. I thought that this guy was going to be Chris Smith.
Dan: Yeah I run into Chris, he and I decided to pop into a pub for a bar for a pint. We are just chatting and, we’re dear friends, but we hadn’t caught up in a while. He was on the original tonic Christmas list. I said, “Hey, you’re not going to believe it. I’m going to sell the tonic recipe.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Yeah, this guy I know wants to buy it. We threw a number out there. I’m waiting on an actual contract, but I think I’m going to do it.”
Susan: He’s like, you’re crazy.
Dan: He said “Dan, I love you. You’re an idiot. Let’s start a business.” I thought Chris, the last thing I want to do is start a tonic business. That sounds like a lot of work.
Susan: I assume you had a full time job.
Dan: Yeah. Well, my day job is still in sheltering work. I help run shelters for women and children fleeing violence. That was the same type of work I was doing over in West Africa years ago and that’s been the career this whole time. Chris and I sat down and had a few more drinks that day and hashed out what we thought might be a good idea we went for it. We launched this business almost five years ago now.
Susan: Why do you think meeting Chris or your discussion swayed you from just selling it and then saying, bye-bye to it.
Dan: Well, there are a few reasons. Chris and I, as I’ve said, have been dear friends for a long time and I love and respect him. He also has a really different skillset than I have. The idea that Chris was going to bring his skills to a business that I feel like are complimentary to mine. Listen, I’m a long hair kind of hippy dude, and Chris is high and tight with all his buttons done up, and, and he’s a great, hilarious, charming, thoughtful guy, but he also can make his way around an Excel spreadsheet, like a wizard. And that’s real tedious to me.
Susan: It was the Excel spreadsheet that did it.
Dan: And then also Chris has belief in the thing. He’s an unbelievably smart guy. For him to say he thought it was a thing made me reconsider how I was thinking about it. When you make something, it’s easy to disregard something that you made with your own hands, even if it took a lot of effort, it’s just the thing you did. There’s no magic to it. It’s you’re so it can’t be that special. Right? You made it on your stove at home.
Susan: What were the first steps to starting up the company?
Dan: Well, the first steps were a few things, right? We wanted to see what other people thought of it. At least, we thought that’s what we wanted. It turns out we had a bit of a tasting party at my place and did some focus groups among cocktail folks from here.
Some people that we knew who were pretty fun to sit and drink gin with, most of them said it’s too bitter. It needs to be sweeter. It’s too bitter – I just wouldn’t abide that thought at all. I think bitter in a cocktail is really the only way and it’s borne out over time for sure. I wanted this thing to be different than a sugary yellow can of tonic, otherwise what’s the point.
Right then we’d started to think about how we wanted it to feel and how we wanted it to look. We sat down and said, what are the goals? What do we want? What would be an appropriate sales goal for a year? But more important than that – are there any values, is there anything we care about that we want to make sure that this business has? We came up with some that we still live to today.
We live by them so much that it was easy for me to tell you what they were. Next we wanted to make enough money that we could share it. What that meant was that everybody that ever works for us gets paid a living wage and gets to work in a respectful place that’s going to treat them fairly and honor their labor well.
The second thing is that we wanted to make products that were so good we were proud to put our name on every single bottle. We do that. We hand sign every bottle that we make still, and hand batch number every bottle of every product that we make.
Susan: I noticed that when you sent me some of your amazing products, I noticed it said handcrafted by batch number.
Dan: Yeah. that’s right. Part of it for us is that we wanted to make something that was just undeniably good and that we were really, really proud of. Then we also wanted to make sure we were having fun. That was the last principle for us. We said it had to be fun, because owning a business can be arduous and really difficult. But if it isn’t fun, then we were not going to really honor what this thing was supposed to be for us.
Those were the first steps. Then it was finding a kitchen that we could use. Cause we couldn’t have done it at my place. You need a real inspected industrial kitchen. We didn’t realize what this was going to turn into or how quickly.
We had the sales goal in mind. This number that we thought, if a year from now, we’ve sold this amount, it’s a real business. This is something we should devote time and energy and love and money into and we met that one year sales goal on day 22. We couldn’t believe it. .
Susan: That’s incredible. Were you just selling to your area or all over Newfoundland and Labrador?
Dan: We had retailers here in St John’s. At that point, a batch of tonic took us all night because we were working our day jobs and had families. Then we’d go and cook this stuff all night long, and that would be 200 bottles. We get 200 bottles out of a batch.
I remember this was about three weeks before Christmas, five years ago, we went to this remarkable coffee shop on Water Street here called The Rocket. We sent out a little tweet when we were leaving the manufacturing space, saying “on our way to the Rocket with a full batch, lots of stock for the weekend.”
This was on a Saturday morning, because we’d just finished our day jobs on Friday afternoon. We went there, cooked all night, brought this tonic down. By the time we got to The Rocket, there was a line outside. None of it made it to the shelf, all 200 bottles sold from the boxes that we were carrying them in.
Susan: How had people heard of it? Just word of mouth?
Dan: Word of mouth. We were really fortunate that the restaurant and cocktail scene here in St John’s was ready for this product. We’ve got some amazing restaurants here, places like Mallard Cottage, and Raymonds, which are some of the best restaurants in the world. They happen to be right here in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Those places put us on their menu right away. We’re happy to tell people about it. It’s different – the product feels different even more than anything you’ve ever seen before. People got excited about the idea of trying this new, weird, interesting thing. If you see our product on the shelf, it looks like an old medicine bottle. It doesn’t look like tonic.
Susan: Yes. I love your packaging. I went through and tasted every single one. I thought I could drink this by itself as well. They’re super interesting. Now, you had the tonic going, that was obviously a huge success. How did you plan on what you wanted to do next? Did you even think there would be a next flavor?
Dan: Originally this business was called the Third Place Tonic. We just thought it was one product.
Susan: Oh, wait, let me interrupt you. Third place, where did you come up with that?
Dan: Right. I think if we had known this business was going to be a success, we might have named it something different. I love it still. I’m glad we went this way. The Third Place is an old sociology term. The first place in your life is where you spend most of your time. For lots of us, that’s your home, especially now.
The second place in your life is where you spend the second most amount of your time. For most of us, that was work. Then the third place in your life was wherever you got together and built community and met with your friends.
We wanted this product to do that kind of thing. For us, the third place in our lives – for Chris and me, it was always pubs and bars. I mean, it never occurred to us to call our friends and say, do you want to go see a movie? It was like, Hey, are we heading to the pub? Which one? That’s even if you weren’t having a big drinking night. That space was where you got together with people. That’s where the name comes from.
We feel like anything that helps people come together and build community is important. Certainly a good cocktail is a great reason to get together with your pals, especially now when our homes are all of our places, right in the time of COVID. Your first place, second place, third place all tend to be the same chair in your home a lot of the time. It’s been interesting to make a series of products that are made for people to experience at home. That was really one of the goals – to do all the work for you.
Susan: You do make it easy definitely
Dan: We had this tonic that was meant for gin, then we worked with distillers and great.= alcohol companies. One of them makes a vodka here and in Newfoundland and Labrador called iceberg Vodka. It’s made from iceberg water. It’s this really pure, interesting vodka. One of the guys from Iceberg came to us and said, “We would really love a tonic that’s meant to go with vodka instead of this tonic that’s meant to go with gin.” I said to them, “When I drink Vodka Tonic, I always want elderflowers.” Elderflower is the flavor that I want to sweeten things up. It’s a beautiful, old, British flavor and it tastes good. Elderflowers are a remarkable thing that also grow here in Newfoundland and Labrador.
I had been thinking about doing some, because it was something that I liked to drink myself. I’d been thinking about elderflower as a potential second product. Maybe there’s some products on the market that were beautiful, elderflower syrups and elderflower liqueurs. But again, they were just too sweet for my palette. I just didn’t like all the sugar.
We produced elderflower which had meant to go with vodka. Then we thought, gosh, this went really well. We should think about what else we want to do. That’s when Chris said, “Dan, I already have a thing in mind.” He’s a bourbon drinker in the same way that I’m a gin drinker. The same way that I like to think about gin, Chris likes to think about bourbon. Chris has traveled a ton as well.
He said, “I’ve been to these amazing bars. You sit down at a bar and the bartender takes 25 minutes and he makes you a cocktail. He would be smoking something over here and ice cubes or doing special thing over there. Then, he charges £10 or £12 for the thing and you got to wait forever. Then he presents this cocktail and it’s perfect. It’s almost always a whiskey cocktail for me. I want to make a product for whiskey that makes you feel that way, but that you can mix at home.”
I thought, sure, where do you start? He said, “Oh, you start with the flavors, Dan.” What do you want it to taste? I knew that I wanted it to taste smoky, because it’s going to pair with the bourbon well, and really stringent. I want to go back for more and I want it to be floral. We started with this beautiful smoked tea, this Lapsang Souchong tea from China.
I went to tea school for a long time. I love good Chinese tea and we use great tea in all of our products. We started with this beautiful smoked black tea and some rose petals and rose hips and hibiscus flowers and got to work. The product is called Ginger Rose and it mixes with whiskey and it’s a total home run.
Susan: The way you’re talking about food and how you’ve created a lot of different flavors. Are you a cook? Do you love cooking? Did you cook when you were young?
Dan: Yeah, I love cooking. Chris is the best home cook I’ve ever met. He hates it when I say that, but the food Chris makes for his family at home is as good as restaurant food you’ll find anywhere in the world. On a random Tuesday night at Chris Smith’s house and you get a monstrous plate of food.
I love to cook as well and I spend a ton of time thinking about food. My mom was a pretty great home cook and that was the way that we related. Food is a big part of our lives and certainly a part of the cultural experience here in Newfoundland and Labrador. This was getting together and sharing from visitors everywhere.
Really, we do think about this, we think about the ingredients the same way we think about ingredients like a great chef would and we source those ingredients with it. We’re very, very picky. Where the lavender comes from matters to us; where the vanilla beans come from matter to us, where the lemongrass came from matters to us. We are really picky and fastidious about making sure that those things are in line.
Susan: Since bourbon is his thing, how long did it take you to agree on the Ginger Rose?
Dan: Oh, not long. It took us a while to get it exactly right. I loved the idea. I like whiskey as well. I’m a Gin and Tonic sort of fellow, but I do love a good whiskey cocktail. When Chris came to carry that idea, I said that I wanted it to be a smoky whiskey mix. I thought, gosh, if we can pull it off. I think it’s beautiful, then it took us a really long time.
We worked on that product for almost a year before it was ready to be released. It wasn’t a linear process for us to get to a point where we were really excited to put our names on it and put it out into the world then we came up with another one.
Susan: You said something before, at the beginning about everyone drinks Rum and Coke, right?
Dan: I think that a good, proper Coca-Cola in a glass with some ice – I don’t drink this sort of thing ever – but I know it is said to be the perfect taste experience of bubbles and delight.
Susan: Sometimes, you just want to Coke and only Coke will do.
Dan: Totally. Living in West Africa, you take these Cola nuts, which is where the name Cola comes from, this West African nut you put it between your cheek and your gums, and it’s just this remarkable, delicious, bitter nutty taste. But the part of it that I love best, when I lived over there then, it’s just this caffeine drip into your body all day long that’s beautiful to me. When it came time to think about what we wanted to pair with rum, we wanted it to be a Cola.
All of our products are all natural. We don’t have any chemicals or additives. There’s nothing in these bottles that we aren’t proud of. We thought about making a Cola from the original Cola ingredients, like cola nut and vanilla. Starting there and seeing what we could do to pair with really amazing rum.
Without making it too sweet, we came up with a product. I love our Cola product. It’s great with just carbonated water, just in fizzy water you get like a fancy Cola in your glass right away. Then if you pair it with rum, the way it says on the bottle, I think, you get a rum and Coke experience, but just to the next level, it’s a different thing altogether.
Susan: The last one that I tried was the Radler. You obviously went back to your beer roots, even though you didn’t like beer. Was it to make beer palatable?
Dan: You can enjoy a nice cold beer as much as anybody. The thing that I loved more than anything was there was this renaissance of Radlers happening in the world. A Radler, of course, is this German concoction that cyclists found years ago when you mixed beer with lemonade. I loved it. The problem for me was that there were two things about it that I didn’t like. They were too sweet.
Susan: I was going to guess. Was it too sweet?
Dan: Second thing is that it’s inefficient. Getting a Radler – it’s two and a half percent alcohol. It just feels like half of my glass isn’t what it’s supposed to be. We were working with a great brewery here in Newfoundland and Labrador called the Port Rexton brewery. We were talking to them about what we loved about beer and what we loved about cocktails.
I was telling them that I’m a runner in these long races, sometimes it’s really nice to have something refreshing to drink like a Radler when you’re part way through it. Chris and I decided to take a crack at making a Radler that wasn’t going to be too citrusy. You could mix it with a full-strength beer using our product, any light beer, a lager or ale, you can add an ounce of our Radler and pour it on some ice and you get whatever beer you love turned into a nice herbaceous, citrusy Radler and we love it.
We could tell we did well because most of our Radler is wanted by breweries. They use it in their brew pubs, because they want to be able to pour a Radler but making a Radler can be an arduous process for a brewery at times. It helps them really pair with their beer and expand their menu options.
Susan: You’re from such a beautiful part of the world. You talked about Cola nuts and things that you get from far afield, Are there any specific ingredients that you have you used or that you’ve gotten locally or thought that you needed to use this in something that’s from Newfoundland and Labrador.
Dan: There’s a bunch. There are two that I’d love to just make sure people know about. I think everyone understands the virtue in the value of, but not necessarily that it grows on this beautiful little rock in the North Atlantic that I live on.
One of them is juniper. Right? I mean, the thing that makes gin gin is juniper. We don’t have what we would call High Bush Juniper, which is what most great distilleries around the world use. We have this little scrubby, tiny bush of juniper that grow along the coast and along the rocks, and it tastes different than juniper anywhere else. It’s saltier, the berries aren’t as juicy. They tend to be smaller and harder even when they’re right. But it’s remarkable and we use it in our elderflower.
I jokingly say that all vodka should taste more like gin. In our product that we have to go with vodka, we added a bunch of juniper in there. You get a little hint of that juniper gin flavor in it. Newfoundland Juniper is a beautiful thing. The second thing is that we make some seasonal products that we only sell here in Newfoundland and Labrador and one of them is called Wassail. We sell a Christmas tonic.
Susan: I saw that on your website and I was like, Oh, how am I going to try that?
Dan: We were going to do something new this spring and because of COVID, we’re rethinking the way we want to do small batch stuff. Folks will hear this no doubt before it’s released, but we’re going to release a Spring Tonic this year, that’s made from new Newfoundland spruce tips. Spruce trees grow here. They tend to be stunted, smaller spruce trees than when you think of a big, majestic spruce, but in the spring of the year, when the buds first start to come out on spruce trees, the tips of them are edible and they’re delicious.
They smell kind of Christmassy, but they’re tender. You can pickle them, you can fry them, you do all kinds of fun things. We don’t do any of those things, but we do use them. We dry them and, then the following year, use them in our holiday product because it tastes like Christmas. But there’s a great tradition in this part of the world. And in some other parts too, where in the spring of the year, you head into the woods, or my grandfather would do this a lot, and you’d pick a bunch of things, including spruce tips.
You’d make what’s called a Spring Tonic and it was made to keep illness away and just keep you nice and strong. Spruce tips were a big part of that. We’re going to make a nice spruce tonic. That’s an ingredient that I just love that it grows in town. You can’t go for a run in the city without seeing spruce trees budding in the spring of the year and it smells great and it tastes unbelievable.
Susan: You’ve probably answered my next question – You’ve created all these fabulous things. What’s next? What are you planning? Anything new?
Dan: We’ve got a bunch of things in the works that we had hoped to release in 2020, but obviously like all of us, 2020 put the brakes on some things. We’ve got other products in the pipeline that are ready to go, that we chose not to release this year for a whole bunch of reasons. We have just launched the United States in late 2019 and early 2020.
We’re going to have to make sure we do a great job of building that market. Again, in the post COVID world, before we put anything new on the shelf. What we are going to do are a couple of special, small batch things in 2021 that we’re just going to sell on our website to anywhere in the world.
Folks can check us out on thirdplacecocktails.com. We’re going to sell some really cool things, including hopefully if there’s enough spruce tips around, a beautiful spruce tonic that I think is going to be a real hit for folks. Then we’ve got some other ideas. The cocktail world changes so quickly. The changes in how we think about cocktails and flavors over the last, even five years certainly ten, but five years has been unbelievable.
We’d been learning with everybody else and traveling around the world back when that was the thing that you can do and having these remarkable bartenders make these remarkable cocktails for us. We’ve been thinking about how we want to make products that are going to fit in on those best.
We’re lucky that we’re on some of the best cocktail menus in the world, and we want to stay that way. We know that we got to keep up because all these tiny distilleries are making unbelievable spirits.
Susan: That is definitely true. Something that you’ve said has really struck me that there’s a through line from the beginning of what of your career to now, which is community and how important that is. I mean, the work that you do outside of the Third Place Cocktail Company is so important. I know we just brushed over it a little, it just seems to me that is inherent in everything you do.
Dan: Yeah. I think for all of them, that’s the case, right? Whether we’re as explicit about it as myself and Chris tried to be with this business, or if it’s just how you find joy in your life. I think, we’re all learned a little bit more about ourselves and how we relate to each other in 2020.
Recognizing that those little things that we used to take for granted. Maybe we need to pay a little more attention to just those quick conversations with your neighbors. It’s the people whose names I don’t even know, but who I interact with when I drop my kid at school and that kind of thing.
I really miss those interactions in that sense of community in this time of COVID. We’ve been really amazed by how many people have been reaching out to us to say, “Hey, we just had a virtual cocktail night. We really loved your products has been really great to be able to share this stuff.”
For our business, we hope would help people come together and also help them drink better. Your Gin and Tonic can taste really good at home. It doesn’t need to take you forever to make it. In order to do that and help people build community at the same time has been really fun. It’s been one of the few sort of bright lights in 2020.
Susan: Yes, with every sip that I take of your products, I will think of that. Now do you have any top tips for the home bartender.
Dan: Yeah, I’ve got a couple. The first one is be really fussy about your ice. Okay. Ice in your home cocktail is the secret ingredient. Right? And if it’s been kicking around, open to the air in the back of your freezer, it tastes like those frozen peas that it was next to. You’re really not doing yourself any favors. Make good, big block ice.
It doesn’t need to be perfectly clear, it’s not a photo shoot here, but just take your ice seriously. Make it with good water, keep it away from everything else in your freezer, inside a plastic bag, you’ll be a little ahead of the game.
The second thing is just drink what you like. You don’t need to make the world’s driest martini at home for it to be the right martini for you. If you like it with too much vermouth in it, that’s the way you should drink it. That’s the way you share with your friends. When I’m bartending at home, I want to be able to have the best gin I’ve got. I never save good gin. Let’s not! It’s not the fine china, right? They’re making more of it, no matter how good it is. Open the good bottle, use the good ice and the good glass every time just really enjoy it.
Susan: Now, if you could be anywhere drinking right now, where would it be and what would it be?
Dan: I’ve traveled a ton and had some great cocktails at some great places. Thinking now, there’s one drinking experience that I’ve come to love that I miss a lot. I’m a runner. I’m a competitive ultra-runner, which means these really long races on trails.
There’s this 50 kilometer race here in St. John’s Newfoundland that I love called the East coast ultra-marathon. It ends at a bar and that bar is called Linda’s place in Quidi Vidi in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s not a fancy cocktail bar. It’s more, almost more of a museum, it’s tiny and dark.
The walls are littered with a thousand things that I like. Everything has a story, but it’s the finish line. You get to run 50 kilometers on this brutal trail, and then you cross the finish line into this bar and you get ice cold beer and pop the top. Gosh, do I ever miss that experience?
If I could be drinking anything, it would be a cold beer at Linda’s place, The Inne of Olde here in Quidi Vidi at the end of the 50 kilometer run.
Susan: Do you think that they made the run specifically end at that bar to get people to do the run.
Dan: It’s part of the experience, for sure. There’s this it’s going to sound crazy, but there’s a chili cook then happens all day long while you’re out on the trail running. There’s these beautiful people cooking chili in this bird and you get in there and you get a bowl of hot chili and some homemade, fresh bread and an ice cold beer. Then if you’re like me, you sit around and talk to your pals about why they didn’t run as fast as they thought you would.
Susan: I would even run that and I am not a runner just to get the chili and that ice cold beer. It sounds divine. So I thank you for telling your story and cheers to all, everything that you’ve just said.
Dan: That’s great. Yeah, everybody enjoy it. First chance we get, let’s all run to the streets and hug and kiss each other.
Susan: Absolutely. I can’t wait to be over there and meeting you personally. Thank you again for being on the show.
Dan: Thank you.
Now, we jet off to New Brunswick to meet Sebastien Roy, founder of Distillerie Fils du Roy, as well as, master-distiller and master-brewer. His story began with his first sip of absinthe, well, maybe a bit before that. His love of spirits began when his family bought him an encyclopedia, remember those?
Susan: I’m so excited to have you here today. I can’t wait to hear all about the distillery, and how you started. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you even got into the drinking world?
Sebastien: I have been passionate about producing alcohol since the age of 14. People don’t remember, but a long time ago, before the internet and Google and all those apps, there were books in the house. My parents had bought an encyclopedia and there was a certificate saying that all that knowledge would come to me when I was be older.
So I started to read those books and eventually I found a section on fermentation. When I read it, it was pretty simple – water, sugar and yeast in a closed container would produce alcohol. I read it a couple of times before I dared to mix everything together. One day, my parents were out, so I took the biggest jar my mother had and I poured some water and some sugar and some yeast she had to make bread. I pitched it all in and I hid it in my closet. The day after, when I took the jar out of my closet in the basement, it was moving inside. At that time, I was so amazed.
Susan: You could have blown up the whole house. It’s also so funny that out of all the things in the encyclopedia, and I’m sure it was a big encyclopedia, that you chose that one section. It’s like it was fated that you were meant to be in the alcohol industry.
Sebastien: The feeling I had when I saw the liquid inside the jar moving was just the beginning of something greater. I was very impressed by having created life, because for me at 14, if it was moving, it was alive. In fact, there was no doubt it was a life and I created that life. But at that same time, I was very, very scared, because adults, at that time, were saying, if you produce alcohol, you could become blind. I didn’t want to become blind because of that experiment, so I never drank it or wanted it to go close to my eyes. I was so scared.
Susan: Thank goodness.
Sebastien: I know. The encyclopedia didn’t mention how you become blind, so that was even scarier. Eventually I went to university in business and that’s where I learned that when you ferment sugar, you can’t become blind. I had a little closet at university, where I had all my equipment, I was fermenting wine, beer, and a bunch of different products.
Susan: You must’ve been super popular.
Sebastien: Yes exactly. I learned a lot of things at university, but one of the things I learned is when you produce alcohol, you have a lot of friends and they show up on Friday. Especially for the beer that I was producing. My friends had a very, very nice time.
I made a lot of mistakes during those experiments in my closet at university, but after I finished university, two year after, I partnered with another colleague from university who was a microbiologist. We started our first company. It was in 2004. It was a nanobrewery called . Acadie-Broue that still exists today and we did that together until 2011.
Susan: Were you also doing a separate job or you just went right into making beer doing the brewery?
Sebastien: It was a nanobrewery. We produced around 80 liters. So we had to have a real job. It was more a passion, but at a scale that was a real registered business with inspections and everything. Everything was done as a real brewery, but it was tiny. So in 2011, my friend wanted to stay it as the head of the nanobrewery, that’s what he loved.
I was in business and I thought we’ll never be able to make money with 80 liters. We needed to make it bigger. So that’s when we separated. He still has that same brewery today. The same 80 liter nanobrewery. Then I started with my mother – Distillerie Fils de Roy.
It was a tiny garage with one still and we were doing that during weekends until 2016, when I had to make a choice. The brewery which was big and a distillery. There was a lot of components at that time. So I had to became a master brewer and a master distiller in 2016. I was starting to learn about the angel’s share – the space in the the whiskey barrel and all you need to know about aging.
Susan: Being a brewer is way different than being a distiller. What made you decide that that was the path that you wanted to go into?
Sebastien: Brewing beer and beer have always been a great passions of mine. We traveled the world for beer. We were beer hunters. In the early 2000’s, before I had kids, we went to breweries all around the world in very tiny places just to try their beer. One of those trips was in Germany for one month. We went to travel all around Germany and we also stopped in the Czech Republic. We went to Prague and, it was our third week, so we were a little bit fed up with beer every day, all the time.
So we changed it up. I was with my business partner at that time on that fated day. And he said, “Let’s go try absinthe!” And I said, “What is absinthe?” He said, “It’s only legal currently in Czech Republic and in Spain” And he told me it was green made with a wormwood and had loads of history. So I said, “I don’t mind. Let’s go.”
Then we went to a absinthe bar. Well, when I saw the fountain, those nice glasses, the spoon, the sugar, the fire, and it was green, I said to my friend, “We are in the wrong business. It’s not a brewery, we should be in, it’s a distillery. And that is the stuff we should produce in Canada.” He said, “You’ve had too many drinks. Let’s continue with the beer.”
When I came back to Canada, I had the garden behind the house, I removed my carrots and potatoes and all the vegetable I had and I started to plant wormwood and all the spices needed for absinthe.
I was able to grow everything in Canada during the summer. I registered a still and I started to learn about how to produce absinthe, the complexity of it and harvesting the ingredients at the right moment. There were a lot of very creative moments.
In 2011, my mother had difficulty with her job. She was in the printing industry and printing was not going well at that time. So I said, “We need a Plan B and I have one. Let’s start the distillery and let’s be absinthe producer.” And she said yes!
Susan: Had she had absinthe before?
Sebastien: Nope. She had no clue what it was.
Susan: You had it this one time in the Czech Republic. When you came back how did you know how to find that one specific flavor that you wanted to create? Did you just always think that you would know how to do it because of your history of brewing?
Sebastien: Again, I did like I always did, since the age of 14, I read! I went to an encyclopedia in the library of France, it’s online. I read some different books of literature about how to produce absinthe. How to troubleshoot and the science behind it, what flavors emerge if you don’t do something or if you do something. Just with this information, I had enough to start to make a recipe for absinthe and what type of taste it should have.
To try to find absinthe in this area, it was not popular and it was barely legal, was difficult. So to produce mine was something that was very rewarding. It was to create something with instruction from the past. To take something that been forgotten practically, a spirit, and to make it live again and to grow those botanicals that compose that spirit was a lot of pleasure.
Susan: How was it received? Was it just you drinking it or did you find a whole audience for it?
Sebastien: Well, I think I was the only one that liked it, because everyone preferred my gin. They would say, “Oh, your absinthe is good, but your gin is fantastic.” I was trying to push my absinthe, but people really just preferred the gin.
Susan: So you were also creating gin, because when I left you, you were just creating absinthe. Did you also want to create gin at the same time?
Sebastien: It was an accident. There are some botanicals that I was not able to grow like star anise. I can’t grow that in Canada. It’s impossible, or it would be difficult, maybe not impossible. There was a catalog and I was looking at all the type of botanicals that I needed for my distillery. On one page, there was juniper and I would look at that and I say, “Ah juniper, it sounds familiar. I think they produce gin with it.”
I would then continue and then I would come back and say, “Let’s buy two bags. I will do an experiment one day when I have time, I will just put that in the still and try to do gin. And that’s it.” So I had those back at the distillery in the corner and, one day, I produced all my absinthe for that day and we had a lot of absinthe. So I said, “Okay, I don’t have anything to do. Let’s open those juniper bags.” I mixed it with all botanicals, no big research, nothing fancy, just spontaneously. I just made a recipe and, it was lucky I wrote it down, because sometimes I didn’t write on down!
I had bought clear bottles, because I never wanted to have a mistake and someone confused the absinthe, which is in a dark bottle, with the gin. When I had family members at the distillery, looking at the bottles, they were asking what was in the clear bottle. I would say that is an experiment, that I tried gin just for fun. And they would say that they wanted to try it. Then they would admit that they liked my absinthe, but they really wanted the bottle of gin. That’s the product they wanted. Eventually I made labels and people were coming to buy absinthe and sometimes they were buying gin as well
Then, I sent them to a competition by accident. I was sending the absinthe to a competition in San Francisco in 2013. At Canada Post, the lady said it was more than$300 to send it to the United States. That was so much of my budget. So she said two bottles or six bottles or eight bottles, it was pretty much the same price.
I went back to the distillery and I registered my gin and a pastis that I was also making. There were six bottles in total and practically the same price to send it to San Francisco. When the results came back, I had won a silver medal for the absinthe, a silver medal for the pastis, and a double gold for the gin.
I thought, “Oh my God. My absinthe did terribly. My gin did better. There’s something wrong.” So I sent them to another competition in London and got practically the same results. Eventually people heard about it and I became a gin producer, but I was trying very hard to push the absinthe, but that’s not what people wanted.
Susan: It’s really rare that I meet someone who can do both the founding of, or launching of a brand, and also being its head distiller at the same time. Someone who has the ability to be able to taste something and then turns around and wins medals. You obviously have a palate for these wonderful flavors. When you were younger, were you cooking or was your mom cooking? Did you try to play with flavors at all?
Sebastien: I come from a family that when we gather, we normally share tastes, flavors and drinks, cheese. We like to share and taste. With alcohol, because of practicing and reading, I’m able to put the words into tastes. So we all have the same nose. We all have the same mouth, but it’s not everyone that can put the words to what they feel and then they come those flavors.
Yes, I always have been good at identifying flavor. By doing distillation, it was a way of being able to express myself with flavors and share those flavors with people, other than my family. So yes, I always have been good at identifying flavor, but I’m not saying that I have a better nose or a better taste than other people.
Susan: Well, I think you’re being modest, because I don’t think I could create an award winning, a double gold winning gin. You said your family is from New Brunswick and that is the home of the Acadians, it’s the part of Atlanta Canada that actually speaks French as well. I’m wondering how much of that heritage you bring into your spirits.
Sebastien: History was one of the only things I was good at school. I always had difficulty with French, English, Mathematics, with everything except history. I was just there listening, taking notes, but for some reason, I was the best of in history, but poor in everything else. So when it came to name my company, I had all those stories fresh in my head and it was very easy. I wanted to talk about that tradition. I always have different flavors, but also like to add a little history to all of my products.
Susan: Can you tell us a little bit about that history?
Sebastien: Yes. For example, I produced a painting last year that is the only painting that exists of the Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons, an entrepreneur in France. He invested a lot of money and had three ships and he arrived in 1604. He started the first French establishment on the island of Saint Croix, Canada. It was terrible, so Port Royal became the capital of L’Acadie until 1713. There were no paintings of him. So last year we made a very lovely painting so the next generation will remember him. It was the wrong time in France to be Catholic and he was forgotten.
All the credit goes to Samuel de Champlain. So I’m bringing him back. I am giving credit to different people that were important in this area and putting them on the labels.
Susan: Oh, that’s fabulous. So when your mother was starting to change careers and you bought the distillery, other than the absinthe and the gin by accident, had you thought of creating other products?
Sebastien: To create is what I cherish more than money. I have money to live. I have enough money for my house, for my car, to buy the groceries and everything. What I need, what really rewards me is to create. It’s a great satisfaction. So yes, I produce rum, I produce single malt whiskey, single pot still whiskey, and am producing different types of spirit, different types of beer.
I like to bring things together. Last year, I started to build the first malt house here in New Brunswick and a lab to produce our own yeast. I really want to be able to create everything, every step of the production of alcohol. I want to have a total control and creativity with each of those steps.
Susan: Do you find a lot of the ingredients in New Brunswick around where you live, other than the ones that you’ve grown?
Sebastien: Yeah, it depends. There’s some like cinnamon, for example, I wouldn’t never be able to grow that. So if I put some in my gin, I have to get supplied by a country that produces cinnamon, but most of it that I can grow, I will grow. I will grow my hops. I will grow my barley. I will grow my rye to do a Canadian rye whiskey. I will grow everything.
I can’t really learn from the ground up, how to manipulate those ingredients, how to create something from it if I don’t grow it myself. I did change the rules here in Canada, or should I say I pushed the law a little bit in the production of whiskey. Normally we age the whiskey at around 70% in oak barrels. After it’s done, after a minimum of three years, we can take out the whiskey and we normally cut it with water to bring it to around 40% alcohol or so. I challenged that, because the law doesn’t specify that it has to be water. So I said, “Can I mix my whiskey, after it’s done, with the beer used at the beginning of the process?”
There was nothing in the law that didn’t permit me to do that, so they agreed and I can call that an Acadian whiskey. It’s made with the same beer used at the beginning of the process to produce the whiskey. That’s what it’s mixed with to create the final product. It gives a very nice banana, apple aroma and adds some sweetness, but very light sweetness in the taste.
So that was a little bit of innovation in the world. There is very strict terms of rule and regulation here in Canada and I like always to push them.
Susan: It sounds delicious. Have you seen the tastes of the people who buy your things change? Are more people drinking the absinthe now, or do you find that they’re just still going to the gin and it’s hard to convert them over.
Sebastien: With time, I learned one thing. Marketing really made the big difference. People’s taste is influenced by marketing. I don’t put a lot of marketing into the absinthe. We like it that way. We like to keep everything small. But with information, with what I call marketing, you can change the tastes of people just by giving more visibility to the process.
Susan: Let’s go back a little, we didn’t really discuss the name of the distillery and where that came from how did you decide what to call it?
Sebastien: When we started, we discussed the economy here in the region, it wasn’t going well. We needed a plan B and I suggested that we produce absinthe. My mother asked me what I was going to call this company. And I said that was a good question.
So it took me a couple of days to think about it and because I wanted to use the old technology, copper pot still, etc. A copper pot is no technology. It’s just a big pot of copper with a helmet and that’s it. So I looked into the past in England, in Paris, in Europe. What was a distillery called? What was the name of a distillery?
It was very simple. The name was your last name and son. So it would be Distillery with Roy and Son. So in French, it’s Distillerie Roy e Fils, but I had a daughter. She was around one year old. I couldn’t do that to my daughter – the name of a business cannot be Roy and son. So that’s when I switched the Roy and son for “Fils de Roy” which is son of Roy. So it became Distillerie Fils de Roy, the distillery of the son of the King. That’s my last name, King or Roy in French. It sounded like an old name of a distillery, because I have son in it and my last name.
Susan: How old is your daughter now?
Sebastien: She’s 10 years old and she’s very proud of the distillery and she is fine with the name now, but that was at the beginning, the foundation of the vision of the distillery.
Susan: Yes. And watch out, she may be hiding little jars of things.
Sebastien: Oh, I want her to be doing that!
Susan: You given me some cocktail recipes. I was wondering, when you were creating your spirits, did you always have ideas of cocktails that you wanted to create to go with the spirits?
Sebastien: I have to say that cocktail production is something that I’m starting to know more and more. I really believe and have come to the conclusion that I consider producing cocktails is an art form. It’s real creativity. I love to do it. When I read the definition of art, it’s a diverse range of human activity involving the creation, which expresses the creator’s imagination, conceptual idea, or technical skills. It’s intent is to be appreciated, particularly for its beauty and emotional power. In terms of the cocktail, it’s all of it. That’s why I’m now starting to create cocktails, because I found tasting a wonderful cocktail is a way to express, to create, to appreciate, and definitely, it’s an art form. I really do like to do it, but I’m a beginner.
I’m don’t have the technical skill yet. I learned to appreciate when I see someone who can really express himself with a cocktail. Sometimes it’s very beautiful. I have a lot of respect and I’m trying to learn, but there’s so many things I’m trying to learn all at the same time. The cocktail is one of those.
Susan: Well, speaking of learning things – does that mean that you can tell us what your next creating at the distillery? Or is it a secret?
Sebastien: I’m working right now on how to make beer that will be created hundred percent on our site. The malt, the barley, the water, everything. So it’s symbolic. It’s a sign of self-sufficiency. It’s not every brewery around the world that can say that they created the beer one hundred percent from their production site.
That is one of the projects we’re working on. Another project we are working on is single malt whiskey, but we’re working on producing our own barrels using maple. We have a lot of maple trees here in Canada, especially on the land where we are. So I am learning how to produce barrels. That’s the last step I need to master in order to make whiskey one hundred percent from my production site. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.
Susan: Well, just knowing you, I have a feeling it’s going to be fantastic and you’re going to be the best at it. Before we go, could you give me some top tips for the home bartender?
Sebastien: What I would provide as a tip is to have fun. Creating cocktails may become a passion. And that passion can transform into a joyful activity to share with others. I believe anything you do for fun will taste greater, will look greater, and it will bring you more satisfaction. So my tip would be to have fun.
Susan: That’s great. Now, if you could be anywhere in the world having a drink, where would that be right now?
Sebastien: I thought about that and I believe it would be in Oaxaca, Mexico. They’re producing an alcohol that fascinates me as it is made in the traditional way. Mezcal is a hundred percent agave. They dig a big hole and then put the agave in the hole and they start to burn it. Then they cover the hole and wait three days. Then they take it out and normally they will crush it with a big stone that donkeys roll around.
Each time I go to Oaxaca, when I see how they produce that the mezcal, I am always very, very inspired. There’s a specific place called La Casa De Mezcal, that’s the bar downtown in the city of Oaxaca. That’s where we’d like to be. There’s a snowstorm today in Canada. There’s probably no snowstorm in Oaxaca currently.
Susan: Absolutely not. I want to join you there. I’m dying to go there too. So that’s a great one. I can’t wait to come back and see you again. Thank you so much for joining me on the show.
Sebastien: It was my pleasure.
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