Toronto Star: Made-in-Toronto moonshine now at the LCBO December 21 2013

Originally published by The Toronto Star, written by Stephanie MacLellan, December 19, 2013. Original piece

Good news for liquor-loving locavores: you can now buy organic, made-in-Toronto moonshine.

The Toronto Distillery Co. has just released its first batch of Organic Ontario Wheat Spirit, made from organic wheat grown in Schomberg and distilled in Toronto.

You might think of moonshine as something whipped up in a hillbilly’s bathtub — originally, the term referred to black-market alcohol — but the technical definition is whisky that hasn’t been aged, said Charles Benoit, who founded the company last year with his friend Jesse Razaqpur.

Benoit and Razaqpur are both 31-year-old lawyers with no formal training in the art of whisky. But Razaqpur has brewed his own beer and Benoit did pro-bono legal work for the American Distilling Institute, which took him to several distilleries and introduced him to distillers.

[Razaqpur actually learned from Ian Smiley who is a professional distiller. After learning the ropes, it was a matter of constant experimentation until he got it right. *not in the original piece]

“It seemed like this was, a) doable, and b) a ton of fun,” Benoit said.

He and Razaqpur bought a still and moved into their space in the Junction last November — they say their research shows it’s the first distillery to open in Toronto since the 1930s.

They didn’t set out to make their whisky organic, but when they went to buy ingredients, they were surprised and frustrated to get so little information about the origins of the different grains.

“Then this friend who’s involved in an organic bakery business up in Ottawa said, ‘If you want to know where your food comes from, just go organic,’ ” Benoit said.

Through online research and contacts, they found Mike and Bonnie O’Hara, who grow wheat on their organic family farm in Schomberg, about 40 minutes north of Toronto, and Mark Heyhoe, who mills it in nearby Beeton. They settled on soft winter white wheat for their first batch of moonshine, which they describe on their website as having “smooth, huge cereal taste with hints of violet and pepper.”

For their next batch, they’re considering another type of wheat — a high-protein variety called red fife that is usually used for bread, not alcohol.

“We actually really liked it,” Benoit said. “As opposed to being sweeter and creamier, it’s nuttier, smoky.

“I never would have guessed beforehand that two different types of wheat could both be wonderful and taste so different.”

Whatever wheat they use for their next batch, it will probably taste different — similar to how wines taste different from one year to the next depending on what kind of season it was for the grapes. So each batch of whisky from Toronto Distillery will be labelled with the origin of the wheat and the year it was harvested.

“Rather than having one product that’s absolutely consistent because we’re keeping a huge inventory to blend with, it’s much more fun, at least for us, developing a good catalogue of spirits ... and being completely transparent so consumers know exactly what it is they’re drinking. Not just some branded product, but like, ‘I am drinking this grain from this harvest.’”

Organic Ontario Wheat Spirit sells for $39.50 at the LCBO.