The release of a Japanese whiskey wouldn’t normally be the sort of thing to grace the pages of this magazine. But the new offering from Sunday’s Spirits has a local connection. Specifically, a Sherwood Park connection.
The co-founder of Sunday’s Spirits is Lindsay Jang, who, along with her partner Matt Abergel, also founded a couple of the most talked-about restaurants in Hong Kong, Yardbird HK and Ronin. Jang grew up in Sherwood Park. Her family ran a Chinese restaurant there, the Golden Capital, for more than three decades. Her father and her stepmom still live in the area.
Now, Jang is a Hong Kong celebrity entrepreneur. She was named to the Gen. T list — think of it as a Top 40 Under 40, except for all of Asia, that recognizes “the 400 leaders of tomorrow who are shaping Asia’s future.” She’s been featured in Vogue Hong Kong.
Jang and Abergel moved to Hong Kong in 2009. The plan was to stay there just a short time, as Abergel had a contract to work at a kitchen there. They’d save some money and move back to Canada to start their dream restaurant. It didn’t work out that way.
“We were contemplating opening Yardbird in Vancouver, to get back to Canada and be closer to family,” says Jang. “But, it was just a really weird time in Vancouver. It was pre-Olympics, it was hard to get the attention of realtors. It just didn’t feel right. So, we came back to Hong Kong and we had an investor here. That investor had found us a space, and it was all lining up, very serendipitously.”
Yardbird Hong Kong opened in July of 2011, and it led to a string of successful launches.
But, how did they get from restaurants in Hong Kong to Japanese whiskey?
Enter Elliot Faber, or, more aptly, re-enter Elliot Faber. Jang and Abergel knew Faber from Calgary. He was an up and coming wine ex-pert, and in 2011 they decided to bring him over to Hong Kong so he could help set up the beverage program at Yardbird HK. The idea was that he’d stay for a couple of months, then maybe do some consulting remotely afterwards. Faber never left.
The goal then evolved into Yardbird HK having its own branded sake, taking cues from famous New York eateries like Nobu and Momofuku.
“It sort of evolved from there,” says Jang. “Elliot started to really get into sake, to the point where he’s actually a sake samurai, now.”
(We will stop right here and point out that, yes, “sake samurai” is a real and totally awesome thing. It’s a designation of expertise, and reads great on a business card.)
During this time, the Hong Kong-based partners were making regular trips to Japan — in part because of their interest in sake. And, so, a three-nation synergy was born — Canadians with businesses in Hong Kong, developing their passion for Japanese spirits and tradition.
Faber ended up writing a book about sakes and, through his research and travels, he learned of the 250-year-old company (which is young, by Japanese standards), Sasanokawa distillery.
But if the goal was to create house-branded offerings for Yardbird HK, why is the brand called Sunday’s Spirits?
The Sunday’s name is used on the spirits because the “Yardbird” name is contentious. Jang admits they’ve been “in and out of litigation in the United States” over the use of the name. And, no, it wasn’t influenced at all by Edmonton’s Yardbird Suite.
“It’s settled now, but we’re going to continue to run into problems,” she says. “We chose Yardbird because it’s in your neighbourhood, it’s chicken, and it’s very accessible. There wasn’t that much romance around the name. Apparently, at the time, it was trending.”
Sunday is the middle name of Abergel and Jang’s daughter.
In 2014, Jang and Abergel opened Sunday’s Grocery, a high-end Japanese themed bodega, in Hong Kong to establish the brand.
Fast forward to late 2020, and Sunday’s whiskey is available on Alberta shelves. It’s a very pale amber, which would lead you to
assume that it will be spicy and have a lot of alcohol burn. But, in fact, it’s accessible and has a lot of sweetness.
“We wanted to make something very versatile,” says Faber. “So we went with the malt and grain whiskey model… as malt and grain, you’re going to have this backbone and structure coming from the malt whiskey.”
But, the city of Koriyama, where the distillery is located, has access to natural water that’s soft — there are Japanese legends about the waters in the area being able to smooth aging skin and heal wounds. While we can never endorse unsupported medical claims, there’s no doubt that the water of Koriyama is part of Japanese folklore.
“The water tends to bring out a rich and sweet kind of flavour,” says Faber. “So, one thing you will taste is the purity in the water. It’s something that makes Japanese whiskey stand out. And it makes whiskey made in Japan unique.”
After being introduced to the Alberta market, the goal is to get to the rest of Canada. But, there’s a special sort of red tape that comes with being a liquor exporter. Jang, Abergel, Faber and their other team members (co-founder Suchit Majmudar and Canadian investor Alex Staniloff), had to navigate a lot of bureaucratic dead ends.
And Canada is exceptionally challenging, because what’s already a pretty small international market is sectioned into different provincial jurisdictions. Each province basically acts as its own nation when it comes to the importation of spirits. Sunday’s has two kinds of sake and a coffee shoju that it sells in Japan and Hong Kong, but hasn’t exported to Canada.
“We have contemplated bringing those over,” says Jang. “But we worked so much on the whiskey journey. We learned so much about the global export of alcohol. I don’t know if I’d ever recommend anyone take that on. It might be the most complicated thing from a litigious and red-tape perspective that I have ever encountered. That’s not saying we wouldn’t want to try a canned highball, something that addresses a different kind of activity.”
Highball? Yes, highball. Both Faber and Jang talked about how they hope Sunday’s takes a bit of the snobbery out of the Japanese whiskey experience, that people can appreciate it as something that can be used in both alcohol-forward beverages and — gasp — with soda. You can take the kids out of Alberta …
Alberta’s move back to Step 1 did not include the closure of schools.
Meanwhile, Ontario shut its schools as COVID numbers increase.