636 Queensway Ct., Peterborough
Set in a nondescript, low-slung building in a semi-industrial area, just a couple blocks off the hustle and bustle of Lansdowne Street’s commercial strip, sits a whole kingdom of drinks. You could drive by, and not even slow down. You’d never expect that here, behind these grey walls, a national liquor is being distilled—and shipped to thirsty customers across both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Owner Bruce Khabbazi is a dynamo, and he meets me soon after I push through the front door, into a small but well-stocked liquor store. “We make the national drink of Iranians,” he says, brightly. “It was forgotten, and forbidden, after the revolution, and we’re the first to make it!” He’s talking about Arak Saggi, distilled from the sultana raisin. “It’s similar to grappa—great for after dinner.”
Khabbazi started small. After getting his license in 2006, he started making Arak and pomegranate liquor out in Cavan, before moving to his current location and expanding. But, you could say distilling is in his blood—he’s the fourth generation in a liquid tradition that goes back 125 years. “I got it from my uncle, from my family, these recipes,” he says, with pride. From his operation here, he now ships to the Netherlands, England, Belgium, and all across North America. Pointing to a big pile of boxes, Khabbazi says, “those are going to Australia.”
His products are also sold at the LCBO, although I note this his small shop has some items that you’d never find in a stodgy government store. For example, a gold and leopard-spotted throne. “That’s just for me—the king!,” he says, sitting down in it. There’s also a carving of a bull fighting a lion, which represents Nowruz, Persian New Year, celebrated on the vernal equinox by Iranians and Zoroastrians and other cultures across Asia for thousands of years. “The lion brings the spring, and kicks out the bull of winter,” Khabbazi explains.
Now, he makes all sorts of drinks, including gin and vodka as Otonabee River Spirits, a yogurt soda under the brand name Sadaf, served in restaurants across Canada and the U.S. And in addition to those two original liquors, Persian Empire also makes three types of whiskey (rye, malt and American-style), coolers, vodka and rum (including a bestselling coconut rum).
After a quick tour through his distilling facility—a hub of industry today, steaming and rattling, the big tanks working, the bottling and canning lines humming—I try the coconut rum. It’s fresh and sweet, like a walk on the beach. And then, the Arak, which has a pleasing hint of anise. For Khabbazi, that taste is like a trip back in time. “It takes me back,” he says, still smiling. “So many memories.”