Designed by renowned Aboriginal Artist Stephen Peltonen, the distinctive Loon Vodka label reflects the pristine nature and wildlife of Northern Ontario. The distilled spirit produced in Hearst recently won a silver medal at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition featuring over 1400 entries from 64 countries.
The clear, distilled beverage known as vodka may trace its origins and reputation to Eastern Europe but the Northern pulp and paper community of Hearst in Northern Ontario has recently caught the attention of vodka connoisseurs right across the province. That's where you will find Marcel Rheault and his wife Mireille Morin in their home-based micro-distillery capping bottles of "Loon Vodka", a new product that is quickly finding its way onto the shelves of dozens of LCBO outlets across Ontario. "We've been very busy this summer filling orders for nearly fifty stores," says Marcel Rheault of his signature alpha wheat vodka. "As well, Mireille and I have been travelling to a number of stores from Ottawa to Sault Ste. Marie promoting our brand and offering tastings of Loon Vodka to customers."
A farmer by trade, Marcel was growing hydroponic cucumbers when he got a taste for creating a value-added product from local agriculture. He began researching and testing recipes for a spirit distilled in a 250 litre copper still he purchased and installed in his home. Eventually, he refined a traditional Russian-inspired "alpha" vodka that is distilled several times to virtually eliminate any methanol content usually found in the mainstream brands. "The result is a smooth drink with no after taste and no hangover if consumed in moderation," Rheault claims. "As an artisanal distillery, we really concentrate on higher quality spirits in smaller batches." One of only five micro-distilleries in Ontario, the Rheault family produces its vodka from 450 acres of wheat grown in Kapuskasing, an hour's drive from Hearst.
With its gleaming copper boiling pot in the background, Rheault Distillery's display attracted many visitors to the Northern Ontario Agri-food Pavilion at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. As first time exhibitors at the FedNor-supported pavilion last November, Marcel and Mireille Rheault unveiled their signature "Loon Vodka" to hundreds of interested fair-goers just weeks before their product became available at select LCBO outlets in Ontario.
While negotiations were still ongoing with the LCBO to bring Loon Vodka to the Ontario market, Rheault Distillery was invited by FedNor to exhibit with other Northern vendors and organizations at the country's largest agricultural exposition, the 2013 Royal Winter Fair in Toronto last November. The experience was nothing short of phenomenal according to Mireille. "Coming to the fair meant access to a large population to explain how we are making the only alpha vodka in North America," says Mireille. "People like putting a face to a product and The Royal gave us that opportunity. When we came out on LCBO shelves last April, our product was really 'anticipated' by a lot of people in Ontario."
The Northern Ontario Pavilion is the culmination of year-round planning by FedNor staff and a steering committee organized in partnership with NECO Community Futures Development Corporation in North Bay. Each year, dozens of businesses and organizations within the agriculture sector display and promote their unique and diverse products and services that are market-ready and professionally displayed. As one of the largest commercial exhibits at The Royal, the dividends can be both immediate and long term. "This kind of event allows exhibitors to build and prosper as emerging businesses," says Mireille. "It is vital that we have FedNor helping us with our efforts to develop new industries in the North."
With success comes the familiar 'supply meets demand' challenge. Plans are well underway to expand the family operation to include a 5,000 sq. ft. building that will house a 1,000 litre still, capable of quadrupling current production output. With the goals of new product lines including a barley-based whisky and a cherry liqueur plus marketing beyond Ontario's borders, it may be only a matter of time before more spirit-lovers start answering 'the call of the loon.'