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Judges’ Choice: Rheault Distillery

Rheault Distillery has been producing its award-winning vodka, whisky, rum, and liqueurs since opening in 2014. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the distillery switched to producing hand sanitizer.

By the time next summer rolls around, fans of Hearst-produced spirits like Loon Vodka and Sinful Cherry Liqueur will see another tasty option on the menu: cider.

That’s when Marcel Rheault and Mireille Morin, owner-operators at Rheault Distillery, expect their new venture to be up and running half a day’s drive west in Thunder Bay.

“This (distillery in Hearst) is going to be the motherhouse, and Thunder Bay is going to be an atelier,” Rheault said of their planned expansion.

There, they’ll solely be producing cider and whisky, but the varieties made in Hearst – including vodka, liqueur, and rum – will be available for sale.

The couple has already secured a parcel of land in downtown Thunder Bay, and the business was recently approved for a licence to produce cider. They’ve even hired a cider expert, who will oversee the fermenting process.

During the winter months, the couple will remain in Hearst, taking advantage of the cold temperatures to produce enough vodka to fill their orders for the year, and come summertime, they’ll decamp to Thunder Bay where they’ll refocus their energy on the whisky and cider business.

Expansion, nearly a decade after Rheault Distillery launched, is designed to capitalize on Thunder Bay’s large population base, which Rheault is hoping will draw thirsty visitors eager to sample his spirits.

“There are so many festivals,” Rheault said. “That’s when you make the money.”

A former cucumber farmer and inventor, Rheault first decided to start producing vodka on the suggestion of a friend, installing the first still right in the couple’s living room, where production continues today.

Over the years, they added cherry and raspberry liqueurs, whisky and rum to their offerings, but their trademark product remains the Loon Vodka – an “alpha” vodka, which is distilled four times to meet stringent specifications set by the Romanov dynasty in Russia in the 1600s.

Only five other distilleries in the world meet such exacting standards.

The couple has taken a local-first approach to the manufacture of their spirits, sourcing wheat from producers in Ontario and even enlisting Northern Ontario farmers to grow some grains.

For the design of the logo on the Loon Vodka bottle, Rheault commissioned the services of Stephen Peltonen, a Hearst-based Indigenous artist whose artwork was incorporated at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The LCBO first introduced Loon Vodka to its shelves in 2014, and it quickly became a consumer favourite, outselling well-known brands like the French-made Grey Goose.

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Much of the products’ early success was thanks to Rheault and Morin’s own marketing efforts.

The couple often travelled to LCBO locations around the province to provide samples and promote the spirits’ qualities in person.

They’ve also been a steady, annual presence at premier Toronto events like the annual Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention.

Because their spirits have such a high production quality, the couple has been invited to compete at a number of industry competitions over the years, and Loon Vodka in particular has won several accolades, including a double gold medal at the 2015 China Wine & Spirits Awards and a silver medal at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Loon Vodka also earned the distillery a Premier's Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence in 2014.

When COVID-19 arrived in Canada in March, Rheault Distillery immediately switched to producing hand sanitizer to help meet demand.

Rheault had stopped for supplies at a New Liskeard department store after attending the PDAC convention only to see bare shelves where bottles of hand sanitizer should be.

He intuited there would be a growing need and immediately set to work procuring the licences, supplies and equipment needed to supply the market.

Since then, Rheault Distillery has churned out thousands of litres of hand sanitizer, which has been shipped to clients across Canada and in the U.S.

The Ontario government is one of the distillery’s main clients, and an international company is awaiting an order of 250,000 litres – about 20 truckloads – to be shipped within the next six months.

Hand sanitizer has now become a secondary commodity for the company, and Rheault believes it can only grow from here.

“In business, you have to be able to flip around and redo yourself within a day; that’s the way it is,” he said. “If an opportunity comes up, you gotta grab it; otherwise, it’s going to slip between your hands.”

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.