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The flavour alchemist

Profiles

The flavour alchemist

At the corner of Chapleau and Masson in Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood, Lilian Wolfelsberger is constantly experimenting. The co-founder of Distillerie de Montréal took us behind the scenes in his lab and revealed the creative process behind his chocolate and pineapple spirits.

Published on August 29, 2023

“Right now, I’m in the mood for some bananas flambé!” said Lilian Wolfelsberger. For the co-founder of Distillerie de Montréal, a simple dessert he prepares for his children can turn into an obsession. Based on the number of vials crowding his desk, that’s not the only idea he’s cooking up. On the wall are displayed some 15 gold and silver medals from the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles awarded to his Rosemont line of spirits, among them the ginger-flavoured L’Après-Ski Spiced Rum, the Gin Rose de Montréal with cranberry and rhubarb, and the El Chapleau blue agave eau-de-vie that “beat out Mexican tequilas for gold,” noted Lilian. All these spirits were developed right here, in this lab-like room. 

A legacy of creativity

Alembic stills have been a part of Lilian’s life practically from birth. “I come from a family of distillers in Alsace and Franche-Comté. We’ve been making alcohol for five generations,” said the man who now calls Montreal home. He admitted that his creativity comes from his mother. “At my parents’ place, there’s an eau-de-vie cellar and a jam cellar, which must have about 700 jars. If we made a sweetbriar cognac, my mom would cook up a quince, vanilla and sweetbriar jelly. If we had an elderberry liqueur, she’d prepare blackberry and elderberry compote.”

Lilian takes after his mom and enjoys coming up with unusual flavour combinations—even if they don’t always work out. Like the time he wanted to distill apples and Mirabelle plums, “even though old-timers say you shouldn’t mix seed fruit with stone fruit.” Verdict? “It tasted awful!” But he wanted to test the claim! Some of his experiments were more successful, like when he played around with pineappleweed. When mixologist André Duncan told him about this pineapple-flavoured weed, Lilian was quick to pick some from a parking lot and macerate it. This Quebec plant is now a key ingredient in his famous pineapple rum

Brewing up ideas

Grabbing a few pots from his workbench, Lilian lifted the lids to breathe in the contents—cocoa beans that Franck Dury Pavet, founder of Chocolat Dicitte, brought him from South America. A while ago, the distiller decided to create a chocolate gin after being blown away by a product from a mother-daughter duo at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. “When I taste a particular alcohol, I see it in colours,” he said. He wanted to replicate the colour palette of that Belgian gin using Franck’s samples. After some trial and error, one of his concoctions made with Peruvian cocoa nibs stood out from the pack. That’s the story behind Madame Gin Amour, which was co-created with Emmanuelle Ricard, aka Madame Gin (French only).

That wasn’t Lilian’s first collaboration, nor his last. This whole affair started with his associate, Stéphane Dion, and him producing alcohol for their friends and family. After a while, the pair decided to quit their jobs as lawyer and political science professor, respectively, to launch the Rosemont brand. Seven years later, the distiller continues to find joy in teamwork, as demonstrated by his recent collaboration with Chef Charles-Antoine Crête from Montréal Plaza. To create their Calendula herb liqueur, these two aficionados drew inspiration from a recipe for chartreuse they found in an 1857 distillation book that belonged to Lilian’s grandfather. After three years of research, infusion, maceration and distillation, their elixir—made with 67 plants native to Quebec, including wintergreen, angelica root, balsam fir, and valerian—was released this past spring and is now available to purchase at the SAQ.

Experimental music

“We represent the present, the past, as well as the future,” said Lilian, motioning to a series of casks. There’s a grand total of 662 barrels in Distillerie de Montréal’s cellar, where different products are being aged. This includes the “reposado” agave eau-de-vie he’s been working on for over a year. During my visit, the distiller was at the blending stage for this spirit, which was aged in American and French oak. If his calculations are correct, his creation should be ready in September. Until then, the precious mixture is resting to the lively beats of funk music, because some theories suggest that the vibrations lead to more flavour. It’s another of Lilian’s experiments. In his own words, “that’s the magic of distillation!” 

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