A veteran Canadian ad man shows his true spirit

It was on the drive to Foxglove Farm, his 1840s-era property in the picturesque Hockley Valley region about an hour north of Toronto, that Malcolm Roberts was, quite literally, given a sign.

Located atop one of the many rises that characterize that particular section of Airport Road, the sign read simply: “Valley of Mother of God.” A veteran ad-man, Roberts had long ago learned the importance of being receptive to inspiration, regardless of provenance.

This sign, simultaneously evocative and just a little bit mysterious, seemed to be speaking directly to him. “I’d always used ‘Mother of God’ as an expression of surprise, and I thought “Wow, there’s a valley full of that,'” says the founding partner of the Toronto agency Uncommon. “I knew we needed to find a product we could attach that name to.”

Five years later, that product has arrived on store shelves: A premium gin brand that, according to its label, hails from “A place of natural wonder where miracles abound and rich adventures begin.” A bit flowery? Perhaps, but the spirits category is rife with similarly evocative origin stories.

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Roberts should know. He has helped craft a few himself during his more than 30 years in advertising that has seen him work with numerous spirit brands including Lamb’s, Smirnoff and Skyy.

He’d been toying with the idea of creating an alcohol brand using ingredients grown on Foxglove Farm since purchasing the property in 2015, and gin held a lot of appeal.

While its origins date back to 12th century Salerno Italy, the spirit has become inextricably linked with the British over the past 900 or so years. It was part of Roberts’ youth growing up in a farming community in England’s Shropshire region.

“Gin was part of my upbringing and farming was part of my upbringing, so it just all combined,” he says. “It just felt like all those experiences were funnelling towards this point.”

His idea was validated by research suggesting that winter wheat, the principal crop on Foxglove Farms’ 72 acres, was ideally suited to creating the neutral grain spirits that could be turned into gin.

Alongside his partner Shelly Perry, Roberts first hatched the plan for what would become the Valley of Mother of God brand in 2017. It was a multi-faceted journey, beginning with a master distiller workshop at Kelowna’s Urban Distilleries and, later, a trip to London to gain an audience with master distiller Charles Maxwell—a fourth generation distiller who has been described as “the gin king.”

The pair also enlisted the services of famed New York design firm Stranger & Stranger, which has worked with spirits brands around the world. “Every gin that we admired, we’d look into it and find they were the guys that designed it,” says Roberts.

From its sleek tapered bottle (sourced from Spain) to its wooden stopper (sourced from Mexico) and embossed label, not to mention a premium $59.95 price tag for a 750ml bottle, (roughly twice the price of a well-known brand like Beefeater), Valley of Mother of God oozes refinement, the result of a not-insignificant investment of both time and money by Roberts and Perry.

“It was a huge learning curve, but I think we spent the time to really do everything properly,” says Roberts. “We didn’t compromise on anything and we weren’t in a rush to try and get it to market before we thought it was ready.”

Roberts might have had a clear vision for what the brand would be, but it was Perry’s extensive background in food science, which included spending 14 years at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital—first as a clinical dietician and later as a clinical research coordinator—that would shape the finished product.

A self-described foodie and “supertaster”—someone described as experiencing taste with far greater intensity than the average person—Perry would be instrumental in refining the brand’s flavour, detecting nuances between the botanicals that are a key component of gin’s distinctive flavour profile.

“I have a very fine palate when it comes to liquor and wine and food,” she explains. “I was familiar with the impact that different botanicals can have on flavour.” In the early days of development, determining the optimal mix required distilling and infusing about 70 different botanicals in an ad hoc “gin lab” in their downtown Toronto apartment, using a series of Sunday morning tasting sessions to eliminate combinations that didn’t work.

The goal, says Roberts, was to create a product that would boast a proudly Canadian heritage and flavour profile, while possessing global appeal in the fast-growing gin category. “We wanted it to be a world-class product and put Canadian spirits on the map,” he says. “We didn’t just want it to be a little local brand.”

According to data compiled by the statistics aggregator Statista, the global gin market has nearly doubled in size over the past six years—from US$7.9 billion in 2014 to a projected US$14.8 billion this year, rising to US$16.6 billion by 2023.

Its popularity is being abetted by a rise in cocktail culture that has become even more popular during the self-isolation period brought about by the COVID pandemic (and an endorsement here for my personal favourite, the Corpse Reviver No. 2) and the likes of Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds, whose humorous ads for his Aviation Gin brand have led to a growing affinity for the spirit among younger drinkers,

Roberts knew that gin’s flavour profile, which has led to associations with Christmas trees, would be a key obstacle to driving trial among millennial drinkers. But while Valley of Mother of God is juniper forward in the London dry gin style, its flavour profile is softer and more complex.

That was good enough to earn Valley of Mother of God a silver medal at the Tasting Alliance’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition earlier this year. A medal at an international spirits competition can be a marketing boon, and a sticker proclaiming the win was promptly affixed to the label of the first batch of 1,600 bottles of Valley of Mother of God, produced at Still Waters Distillery in Concord, Ont.

It’s the kind of thing that can attract consumers, particularly when they’re faced with a shelf full of similarly eye-catching bottles. Roberts recalls reading a stat somewhere, he can’t remember where now, which noted that 70% of people who pick up a bottle in a store will end up purchasing it. “That’s been in the back of my mind for a long time,” he says.

The ultimate goal is for Valley of Mother of God to become a truly global brand, and the name supports those ambitions, says Roberts. “We wanted people to imagine that this could be in their country: the Fjords in Norway, or the Great African Rift Valley. It felt like it could be relatable anywhere and we didn’t want to beat people over the head with Canadian cliches.”

Unfortunately Roberts’ company Foxglove Spirts won’t get the gin into as many hands at launch as they’d originally hoped. The original plan was to launch Valley of Mother of God in 25 LCBO stores in Toronto and Ottawa, although the arrival of the COVID crisis saw that number cut down to just two stores.

Roberts, though, is sanguine about the impact COVID is having on Valley of Mother of God’s initial sales sales. Further proof, perhaps, of that old adage: When life gives you lemons, make a gin and tonic.

Chris Powell