Note: This post originally appeared in December 2015.

Sébastien Roy is a lover of both spirits and the province of New Brunswick. Four years ago, Roy combined those passions to create Distillerie Fils Du Roy, a small distillery based in Petit-Paquetville in the northern part of New Brunswick.

With a slew of impressive award wins already under his belt, an entrepreneurial spirit (pun intended), and an infectious passion for his home province, Roy makes for a great interview. We sat down with him to discuss the distillery’s early success, entrepreneurship, and his New Brunswick pride.

ONB: Why did you choose Petit-Paquetville to build your distillery?

Fils du Roy New Brunswick Roy: We chose that location because of the water. Water supply is obviously important for a distillery; a bottle of vodka, for example, is 60 per cent water. We needed plenty of good water, and in Petit-Paquetville we found an ideal supply.

What are your product offerings at the moment?

Our current production includes vodka, gin, absinthe, anisette, blueberry liqueur, cranberry liqueur, and L’Eau d’Août. We’ve also begun producing whiskey which should be the first official New Brunswick whiskey. 

There are more products on the way as well, isn’t that right?

Yes, soon we will have the capacity to produce a molasses spirit. It’s white rum, and in Canada, white rum has to be aged one year. Then it needs to be filtered to remove the taste you got from your oak barrel and the ageing process. I don’t see the point in ageing something then having to take out the flavour, however. So it won’t be a rum, it will be a molasses spirit.

You’ve made partnering with other New Brunswick businesses a priority. Tell our audience about your molasses spirit partner.

We are happy to say we’re working with Crosby’s on the molasses spirit. Crosby’s has a long history in New Brunswick; they’ve been in operation here for well over a 100 years. We’re thrilled to be working with a New Brunswick mainstay like them. They will be providing us with Blackstrap molasses. It’s a dark molasses with a very robust, slightly bitter flavour; it should give our spirit a great taste.

We are also working with a local grain producer to provide us with rye. We want to produce vodka made from rye grain. We’re already producing rye whiskey and single malt whiskey, but we would like to add special vodka to our production.

For blueberry and cranberry liqueurs, we use blueberries from a producer in Saint-Isidore and cranberries grown between Bathurst and Grande-Anse. We try to grow whatever we use here or buy it from New Brunswick producers if we can’t grow it ourselves. Keeping it local, that’s important to us.

You’ve partnered with other local entities beyond growers, isn’t that right?

We have partnerships in the works with research centres in the region. We are looking at growing more of the botanicals we need right here in NB, the juniper for example. We’re working to see if it can be grown in northern New Brunswick just as it is in Juniper down in Carleton County. We believe it can, but we’re still researching it.

Our wood barrel prototype comes from New Brunswick trees as well. I went that way because I don’t want to use oak; I have no affinity for oak. Cedar, however, was used to build houses and boats here in northern New Brunswick. Cedar is a tree that was used for a lot of things by the Acadians, it has a real history. I would like to give to my whiskey a cedar taste, which is minty. The specific flavour I’m looking for comes exclusively from the cedar grown in the southeast part of Canada and the northeastern US.

I use that flavouring for our Gin Thuya, which comes from Thuya Occidentalis, the white cedar here. I use those botanicals in my gin to give it a flavour of this region. 

Thuya has an interesting history in New Brunswick. Tell us more about that.

The Thuya was one of the first documented botanicals in North America. Jacques Cartier was here looking for what is now Quebec City, and his party was suffering from scurvy in the winter of 1535. The Indigenous people were boiling thuya with water, and it was high in vitamin C, so they were able to use it to cure Cartier’s party of their scurvy.

Let’s run down the awards your products have already won.

Gin Thuya won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, as well as gold from the New York International Spirits Competition and the International Spirits Challenge (ISC). La Courailleuse and our anise-based Therio have also won bronze at the ISC and silver in San Francisco. Our cranberry liqueur, Le Monarque Rouge, also won gold in New York.

Colour is a factor in absinthe competitions. Absinthe typically has a bright green colour, and it’s also usually sweetened. For our absinthe, I use the same recipe used in Paris in 1854. They were not using any colorant or sugar then, they got their colour from chlorophyll. So I grow plants here and dry them, and that provides our colour. What results isn’t that bright green you typically see, but it changes with time and that’s a sign of quality. It changes colour in the bottle, just like the leaves. It turns reddish or yellowish after nine months and after a year it has a brownish look. In competitions, they want that super green colour, but I’m not changing my method just for competitions.

The Therio, our anise aged with vanilla, is supposed to be sweet as well but I do not add sugar to any of our products. So it’s all natural flavour from the essential oils of the anise that provides its sweetness. Colour again plays a factor in assessment, but again I’m not changing our formula for the sake of competition.

Where are you exporting to now beyond New Brunswick?

Exporting is interesting in this business. We’ve really had to focus on branding. The products—the liquids themselves—are considered super premium in other countries, but the marketing is going to be very different. One of the things ONB suggested was to seek marketing help from outside this region, so we’ve been working with a Paris firm. They really hammered home the importance of touting ourselves as Canadian and have talked about branding all our bottles with the maple leaf. They really do see our country as one big entity, so the focus is on Canada, not New Brunswick. That maple leaf is essential imagery for consumers there, much more so than even here. It was a good decision to partner with a European marketing firm for that reason; they have their finger on the pulse over there.

Branding is so important for us in these foreign markets, much more important than many people think. It’s not enough to just have a great product; even our award-winning gin needs new branding. Rather than Gin Thuya, they prefer to market it simply as Sébastien, after me. That simple French name would attract more attention in the French market.

We are working to get products in France, Germany, and Scandinavia now and the opportunity to export more to Europe is there and we are continuing to work on that. We’ve had strong interest from South Korea as well, particularly with the cranberry liqueur.

Tell us about the relationship between Fils du Roy and ONB.

ONB has been a huge help to us from the beginning. I’ve long said it’s not simply financing that makes a difference, it’s the advice that ONB’s team has given, and continues to give me. That tip about finding a foreign marketing firm is a good example.

Money you can get from the bank, but the bank can’t give you the same type of industry-specific advice and contacts you get from groups like ONB. Being guided in the right direction in terms of who to speak to or partner with on certain things is what has made all the difference for us. I don’t think we’d be where we are without it.

We’re not really a business family and we’ve never had great financial resources, so we have really valued that guidance. Our experience in working with your organization has been great. Your team has really looked out for our well-being; they want us to succeed.

Financing is a plus too, of course, because it helps minimize risks.

What made you start this business?

My mother had worked in the print industry all of her adult life and that’s not an industry that has seen great growth over the last few years. I could see mom becoming more preoccupied with things like job security, so I thought “why don’t we start our own business?” I had long been interested in this industry, having previously co-founded a microbrewery in the past, so I felt the time was right to take the plunge. That was in the summer of 2011, and that November we went for it. I wanted to create jobs for our family, and not worry about anyone in the family even having to consider leaving the region for work.

We’re at the point now where we can hire other people, and be—in our own little way—a factor in the economy of the Acadian Peninsula. Again thanks to ONB’s support we’ve installed a new column still here in the distillery. With this new column, we may need more hands as we move towards filling more orders, and larger orders. So while our overall economic impact may not be massive yet, for this family and a handful of others in this tiny region it’s made a real difference. We’re proud of that. 

Written by Jason Boies

Cover image: Fils Du Roy