After a freezing six-month winter, there’s nothing as electrifying as the arrival of spring in Montreal, Quebec. This spectacular time of year, when the whole city is ready to celebrate, is perfect for picking out the incredible array of street art that adorns the brick and concrete of downtown Montreal. Art is everywhere! And herein lie the origins of romeo’s gin:
“It’s more of a cause, rather than a gin,” explains founder Nick Duvernois. By design, romeo’s gin has always been entwined with the street art scene in Montreal. In fact, they’ve partnered with five remarkable artists on their bottles, crafting five separate homes for their single spirit of creativity.
Nicolas says, “It’s really about, not only showcasing artworks and artists on our bottles, but really pushing them, bringing them into museum stunts, doing different events, promoting the democratisation of art and getting people to be aware of the street art all around them.”
City on a Hill
An enclave of French-speakers in the fortress of ex-British North America; a gleaming metropolitan outpost in the vast sprawl of Canadian wilderness; a peace-and-love city in a world that just can’t get along. There are so many words to describe the city of Montreal, but Romeo’s Gin CEO and Montreal native Nick has narrowed it down to just one.
He says, “The city of Montreal is synonymous with creativity. We have our own way of life – Coca Cola may be number one in the rest of North America, but in Quebec it’s Pepsi.”
A city like no other, the culture in Montreal is a perfect mix of New World swagger and Old World charm – after all, it was once a French outpost. Food, nature, history and style, this city has everything – except, as of a decade ago, any interest in making spirits.
Stéphane says, “If you look at our culture, we have always been winos and wine lovers. It’s only in the last 10 years, literally, that spirits have started to gain momentum. Not only were Quebecers not drinking spirits a decade ago, but we couldn’t have cared less.”
One man would change that: Nick, the mastermind behind Romeo’s Gin. But the journey from wine-drinking Quebecer to spirits maestro wasn’t exactly straightforward.
He laughs, “When I left university I opened a restaurant – well, I mostly closed it. It went absolutely nowhere. It was the biggest failure ever.”
While Nick’s dreams of culinary fame never came to pass, running a restaurant showed this former professional basketball player and classically Quebecoise wine lover one important thing: there was a whole world of premium spirits out there and, despite having some of the freshest and cleanest water in the world, Quebec had completely ignored it.
Nick says, “I had nothing to lose. I was 25 and had actually lost everything with the restaurant. I said, you know what? Let’s create the first-ever vodka made in Quebec.”
It took long nights of scrolling through Google and a lot of elbow grease, but Nick was able to do the impossible: create the first premium brand of vodka made in Quebec. Called Pur Vodka, he knew that he had a game changer on his hands.
But, because of strict liquor laws in Canada, he had to win over a fearsome foe before he could even make a play for the hearts and minds of his fellow Quebecers: the alcohol regulator, which decided whether a liquor brand could be sold in the province.
It was a Sisyphean task, and presented Nick with quite the conundrum: without approval from the regulator, Nick couldn’t sell his vodka; but, without a proven track record of sales, he couldn’t win that approval. The regulator denied Nick’s application, leaving him with a delicious, Montreal-made vodka and no way to sell it in his beloved city. With nowhere else to turn, he submitted his spirit to a competition, on the off chance it would win.
Nick can laugh about it now, but it was a major risk – especially for a man who had nothing, scraping by with a job as a night janitor and his beloved girlfriend’s hard work as a waitress at a restaurant. Every penny they had was wrapped up in Pur Vodka. If it failed to win awards, everything would be lost.
Fortunately, Nick’s gamble paid off. He explains, “I said to myself: I’m not dead yet. So, let’s see. The next thing I knew, we had won the gold medal for super premium vodka at the World Spirits Competition in London. It changed the game.”
On the back of its success at the World Spirits Competition, Pur Vodka was approved by the regulators. The moment it hit the shelves, it caused a sensation.
As Stéphane, who met Nick just as the vodka was getting off the ground and joined the company after the launch, says: “It’s only because of Pur Vodka’s success, and the momentum that began after that, that we now have a hundred micro-distillers in Quebec. It’s at the root of the spirits culture in Quebec.”
Nick was thrilled. Almost overnight, he had gone from working as a night janitor and struggling to pay the bills to being hailed as the next big thing in the world of craft spirits. But he wanted more – more creative outlets, more meaning behind their work, more ways to pay tribute to the buzz of Montreal.
“The gin craze didn’t exist at all,” says Nick. “Nobody was talking about gin. But I love gin, and I love art. So, I said to myself, ‘Let’s combine both universes.’”
Enter Romeo’s Gin, the perfect blend of art and craft.
Nick and Stéphane call Romeo’s Gin a love story, and for good reason – everything about the bottle in Craft Gin Club’s May box is suffused with love.
The kernel of the idea was first planted in Nick’s mind years before Pur Vodka made his name, when he was working as a janitor and struggling to make ends meet alongside Caroline, his then-girlfriend and now wife.
It was their anniversary, and after dinner they took a stroll through the streets of Montreal. Caroline saw a painting through a gallery window.
Nick says: “I saw in her eyes that she really loved it. I decided that I would buy it for her the next day. It was $3,000! I made maybe $1,000 every two weeks. That’s when I assumed that art was only for rich people, and it insulted me.”
Beyond the bruise to his pride, Nick’s awkward exchange in the art gallery struck a chord. He sensed a great injustice, the kind his father used to rail against: the idea that beauty, that pleasure, was the preserve of the rich alone.
“My dad is from Burgundy,” Nick says. “He knows that wine isn’t supposed to be £80 a bottle. Art is the same. The business behind these beautiful products makes them inaccessible to most people. I said to myself: let’s democratise art.”
After the success of Pur Vodka, Nick could have returned to that gallery and bought any piece that caught Caroline’s eye. But instead, he decided to bring beautiful pieces of art to the back of a gin bottle. And he already had the name: Romeo’s Gin.
Romeo was the black Labrador Retriever that he and Carolyn had adopted a year after they’d met. He had lived with them through poverty, through success, through marriage and children. He was love and loyalty, embodied.
“I love gin, I love what I do, I love art and I love my dog,” Nick laughs. “So Romeo’s was the perfect name for this gin.”
Nick’s gin had a raison d’etre and it even had a name. What it didn’t have was a recipe. After all, capturing the frenzy of the first day of spring in a liquid isn’t exactly straightforward.
As Stéphane explains: “We wanted to transport drinkers to that moment, but how can you translate that with ingredients? We tried every citrus available, we tested and tested and tested.”
No luck – nothing was working. Nick and Stéphane didn’t want an average gin. They wanted perfection, best-in-class, but it wasn’t looking like it was meant to be. After another failed meeting with their creative team, there was nothing for it but a long lunch in downtown Montreal.
Nick smiles as he tells the story. He says: “Stéphane and I ordered steak tartar, but my wife was nine months pregnant, so she just had the soup of the day. Normally the soup of the day is basically anything they want to get rid of. But after a couple of sips, she looked at us and said, ‘Nick, I think I’ve found the recipe.’”
It seemed impossible. After a year of experimenting, how was it that a pregnant woman – who hadn’t even had a sip of alcohol in nine months – had found the recipe for their gin? Nick and Stéphane both had sips of the soup. It was vibrant, electric, an unexpected yet perfectly balanced blend of cucumber, almond and dill. Caroline had been right – this was the exact flavour profile they’d been searching for.
Nick says: “What’s super fun with this gin is that, depending on your palate, you can sense different aromas. For some people, it’s cucumber all the way. For others, it’s dill. Still others sense lavender more.”
As shifting and chimerical and individual as pulling meaning from a painting, and so reminiscent of the first day of spring, the gin was an instant hit.
“The minute that we launched Romeo’s Gin, it just exploded,” says Nick. “Now we sell almost four times as much gin as Pur Vodka. You can’t be in a bad mood when you drink it. It’s a love story!”
And, for just the price of a bottle of gin, it’s also an entrée into the amazing street art scene in Montreal.
The Universal Language
Nick and Stéphane are incredibly proud of the gin they’ve created, but also the platform they’ve been able to give to Montreal’s amazing street artists. On every bottle, an original piece of artwork appears.
For the flagship edition, it was vital that the team find a piece of art that communicated everything that made Romeo’s Gin special. To find it, they visited the studio of Stikki Peaches, a street artist who insists on retaining his anonymity even as his artwork is exhibited around the world.
As Stéphane explains: “Nick was just struck, like lightning, by the painting on Edition N01. Right away I noted that there’s a strong relationship between the artwork and the gin itself.”
The painting that Nick fell in love with is a portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that hero of classical music, reimagined in a riot of colour and a sea of symbols and words to communicate hope and love.
Stéphane continues: “Stikki Peaches tattooed Mozart and made him different from any Mozart you’ve ever seen. That’s what we intend to do with the gin category.”
Since Romeo’s Gin launched, the team has released a total of five editions. Each contains the same liquid but features a different spectacular artwork. Some, like Edition N01, were pieces that Nick fell in love with; others were collaborations with other brands or the lucky winners of province-wide competitions. But the relationships are always long lasting.
It all starts with the purchase of the work itself. Nick says, “We buy the original art piece and hang it up in our offices. We also buy the rights, so we’re able to put it on a bottle, and people can buy an art piece for £50 rather than thousands.”
But it goes beyond a simple transaction. As Stéphane says, “For us, it’s about getting people to be interested in contemporary street art. We want to push it deeper than just showcasing artists on the bottle; we support them in their exhibitions and creation of artwork. The relationship we have with them is super tight.”
With all their success, the Romeo’s Gin team has been able to give back to the street art community in Montreal. They’ve taken over two high-rise stairwells to establish Montreal’s first museum of street art and set up the Romeo’s Fund, which supports the work of local artists. They’ve transformed how art and gin can work together – and also how a craft gin can taste.
Stéphane says: “The best complement I’ve ever received was at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. I was doing a tasting, and someone said: ‘Tasting this gin is like I’ve only ever seen the artwork in the Louvre, and you’ve just shown me a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting.”
Enjoy, Craft Gin Clubbers – the gin in this month’s box is truly a masterpiece!