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Bootleggers Anonymous: inside Toronto’s burgeoning underground booze scene

Modern Tippling

In 1995, my friend Paul and I resolved to taste every beer in Ontario. We were underage but, miraculously, the Beer Store employees let us leave with our precious six-packs. Maybe because we looked harmless, like the kind of nerdy 17-year-olds who would rush home, taste the beers and write rudimentary reviews, complete with star ratings, which is precisely what we did.

I never did try all the beers, but I realized then that drunkenness is a shallow pleasure compared with the intoxication of discovering new flavours. And that alcohol—my obsession soon included fine spirits—tastes better when you have to work for it.

These same lessons are transforming Toronto’s drinking culture. The average consumer now shops for exotic bitters and is expected to know that IPA stands for India pale ale. Bartenders sniff at your vodka martini for its lack of flavour, directing you instead to one of their 97 kinds of bourbon.

The city’s growing legion of beer snobs and cocktail buffs has incited a craft booze revolution, yet Ontario’s gatekeepers of alcohol aren’t introducing quality products fast enough to feed demand. If you want cake-flavoured vodka, the LCBO has you covered, but if you want rhum agricoles from Martinique or an award-winning American IPA, you’re out of luck. Tired of waiting for booze that may never come, we’re working around the system.

The Saloon League formed last fall to geek out over American micro-brewed draft beers. Once a month, one of the 20 or so members—mostly men in their 30s and 40s—heads south and brings back a keg. They take turns hosting parties to taste the imports. This is bootlegging for yuppies. It’s even legal. The members stay within Ontario’s 45-litre importation limit. They pay duty at the border. There’s no charge to attend the parties, since the Liquor Licence Act forbids people from profiting off drinks sold at home. To join, prospective members send a message to the League’s Twitter account (@SaloonLeague).

I signed up and received an invite to a party, along with directions to a half-reno’d midtown house. When I arrived, the League’s founder, a tall man in his late 30s, dressed all in black, answered the door. He works in advertising and blogs about beer in his spare time. He was in a serious mood to celebrate the clandestine tapping of two American kegs.

He led me through the living room, past art by Floria Sigismondi and Rachel MacFarlane, and plunked a plastic jug of Heavy Seas Loose Cannon from Baltimore on the dining room table. It’s an American-made IPA, the most important style of beer in the connoisseurs’ world right now. It almost never reaches the province in draft form. We remarked on the ale’s fierce, hoppy bitterness and peachy aromas. Pizza arrived, which we paired with a couple of bottles of the Italian sour ale Panil Barriquée—one fresh, one cellared for a year. I savoured the mushroomy funk of the aged one. With unabashed beer lovers surrounding me, there was no one to mock my appreciation.