Canadians understand the cold, but few grasp winter quite like the residents of Quebec City and Winnipeg. This chilly comprehension is partly why, each January or February, inhabitants of these cities throw outdoor parties and embrace the season.
To keep themselves feeling warm and happy, even when outside for extended periods, many revellers turn to Caribou. Part wine, part grain spirit and part spice, Caribou is a traditional boozy punch—not unlike mulled wine, but typically served cold—which has become a cultural icon.
“It’s a brand that is fundamentally related to the fur trade,” says Phillip Tieman of Quebec-based Mondia Alliance, which produces the country’s only commercially available version of Caribou.
The drink dates back to the time of the coureurs des bois—independent French-Canadian traders who traversed the interior of North America in the late-1600s—and the voyageurs, who transported furs in canoes for sale in Europe.
“Essentially, these guys were travelling across the land in fairly adverse conditions, and Caribou was intended as a food and vitamin supplement,” says Tieman.
Popular folklore says the drink was initially a mixture of alcohol and caribou blood—hence the name—but this is up for debate. A more likely explanation is that Indigenous people mistook the voyageurs’ fortified wine for Caribou blood. Regardless, the blood legend makes a good story, and ups the drink’s street cred.
Today, rather than keeping trappers and mappers warm during their icy journeys, Caribou is associated with the winter carnival season. Served in moulded-ice shot glasses, or toted around in wineskins, it’s come to symbolize the joie de vivre possible in Quebec City during its carnival, which runs Feb. 8 through 17, and during Winnipeg’s Festival du Voyageur, from Feb. 15 through 24.
It’s not uncommon for families to make their own recipe at home by combining whisky with red wine and spices, such as cinnamon, or by blending port, brandy, vodka and sherry before adding maple syrup to the concoction.
Tieman remains coy about his company’s exact Caribou ingredients. It always contains full-bodied red wine, he says, along with a local grain alcohol, such as alcool (a pure grain spirit distilled in Quebec) or rye whisky, plus spices.
“Whether you love it or hate it, it’s part of Canadian heritage,” says Tieman
Caribou Sangria Recipe
In a pitcher, muddle:
1 lemon, sliced
1 lime, sliced
1 orange, sliced
1/4 cup simple syrup
750 mL (1 bottle) Caribou
Top with orange juice
Pour sangria mixture 3/4 of the way up an ice-filled tall glass, then top with ginger ale.
—Recipe courtesy Mitch Rouire, Le Garage Café
[This story appears in the January 2019 issue of WestJet Magazine.]