Good Spirits – Local distilleries that give back to the community
Alcohol production can be seen as a recession-proof business, but it was not business as usual for independent spirits producers. Navigating the pandemic delayed opening plans and posed construction barriers, and their relationship with restaurants changed as liquor laws changed. And don’t forget how many responded to the need for hand sanitizer. All of this has made the spirits scene more dynamic and exciting than ever. Here, a look at how four local distilleries have pivoted with the pandemic – and what awaits in the stills.
Almonte Dairy Distillery Founder and CEO Omid McDonald believed the pandemic could shut down LCBO stores, which could shut down their operations altogether. Fortunately, none of these things happened; over the past year, they’ve tripled their workforce from six to 18. “I don’t like to profit when other people are going through a rough patch,” McDonald says. Fortunately, the company was also able to benefit others by providing hand sanitizer to The Ottawa Hospital, City of Ottawa locations and government departments.
McDonald’s surmised that the big hand sanitizer manufacturers would be able to meet the growing demand for the product, but early on he got a call from The Ottawa Hospital saying they needed more. and that they wanted a disinfectant in gel rather than liquid form (the latter being easier to produce for distilleries). Right from the start, Dairy Distillery transformed around 10,000 liters of Vodkow, their signature milk permeate vodka, into a hand sanitizer. With the continued demand for hand sanitizer and because the distillery is reducing waste by distilling an otherwise unused by-product of milk processing, the provincial government took an interest and provided a grant allowing the distillery to double its production. size and quadruple its capacity. Instead of a few thousand liters of milk permeate, the distillery can now take up to 30,000 liters at a time and is one of the largest distilleries to do so in Ontario. McDonald’s describes growth as stressful in itself during a pandemic, but says it has kept staff employed and busy.
Spirits production didn’t resume until the summer of 2020, but sales never slowed down, and the team plans to focus on their Almonte Friendship series, which sees the distillery collaborating with others. Almonte companies (Fulton Maple, Hummingbird Chocolate, and Equator Coffee) for twists on their Vodkow Creme Liqueur. They will continue to produce disinfectant and, as things open up again, welcome visitors to the distillery for tastings in the friendly town of Almonte.
One of the newer distilleries in the region, Dunrobin Distilleries is a business between Mark Watson and Adrian Spitzer, who met at Glebe High School 40 years ago.
Both longtime entrepreneurs, they were preparing to launch their first joint venture in the spring of 2020 when the federal and provincial governments announced they were looking for distillers to make hand sanitizer. The duo quickly realized that their little still on Watson’s farm in Dunrobin couldn’t keep up with demand. But they still had a new 2,000 gallon waiting behind the scenes (destined for their yet to be built facility in Stittsville), and Beau’s Brewing Co. was stuck with kegs of beer that restaurants could no longer sell. The newcomer has found a home again at Beau’s facilities in Vankleek Hill. Watson and Spitzer worked with the Beau’s team to eliminate alcohol from beer, making enough hand sanitizer to donate to essential businesses and many area hospitals, even winning an award for the social entrepreneurship of Ottawa Business Awards for their partnership.
TAlthough they seemed to launch with hand sanitizer instead of their intended spirits, three of their products – Canadian Whiskey, Craft Gin, and Craft Vodka – are already on LCBO shelves. They also sell a popular Earl Gray Gin, for which Watson and Spitzer tried 15 different versions of their recipe before landing on their 12 herbal blend. While they use their largest still, which remains at Beau’s, they continue to use ingredients from Dunrobin farmlands to test recipes and make bitters and extracts on the farm. On top of all this, they are eager to open a new facility in Stittsville after many delays related to the pandemic.
“I think back to our business plan, and last year doesn’t count! Spitzer laughs. Despite the hurdles in building their new location, he looks forward to opening a stylish retail store, tasting room and mixology bar and welcoming guests to their patio as the sun sets.
ARTIST IN RESIDENCE DISTILLERY
Pierre Mantha, owner of the Artist in Residence (AiR) distillery in Gatineau, is eager to expand his microdistillery operations in Ontario, but delays in all matters relating to construction have been a hindrance. Mantha is grateful that AiR’s sales haven’t suffered much.
“You are depressed, you drink. You are happy, you drink, ”argues Mantha. But the logistics to begin construction at their new site in Ontario were dire, he says. After a long wait to lead the way in Hawkesbury, he looks forward to supplying the Ontario market and welcoming spirits lovers to the 17-acre property in October 2022.
Due to interprovincial liquor laws, Ottawans currently have to cross the river to find bottles of AiR in the SAQ, and Mantha is eager to close that gap. The Gatineau Distillery is primarily gin-focused, with flavor profiles ranging from local honey and wild blueberries to citrus, as well as canned gin and tonics. The Hawkesbury Distillery plan also includes a variety of gins, but Mantha is keen to focus on whiskey made with local corn and spring water.
Mantha had just started exporting AiR’s Waxwing Gin, along with some spirits, to Colombia, where his wife is from, and was a sponsor of the Barranquilla Carnival when the pandemic hit. Soon after, the government demanded that production switch to hand sanitizer, which AiR made and donated to Outaouais hospitals, as well as other nonprofits in the region. , including Moisson Outaouais, the local food bank for which Mantha is an ambassador. “Growing up without a lot of money, one of my missions in life is to help children eat,” says Mantha, adding that he hopes to establish similar philanthropic partnerships in Hawkesbury.
LIVING WATER DISTILLATION COMPANY
Whitewater Distilling comes from the people behind the Whitewater Brewing Company. Co-founder and CEO Christopher Thompson says the foray into spirits is a continuation of Whitewater’s desire to create something local and give back to the region.
“We have a really ambitious team and we know that not everyone is a beer drinker,” he laughs. As excitement grew around creative cocktails at their breweries, the next logical step seemed to be making their own spirits.
After 27 different recipe formulations, more than two years of preparation and a few months of delays linked to the pandemic, the distillery division launched its Paper Boat Artisanal Gin in August 2020. In the short term, the plan is to stay focused on gin . ; Paper Boat is already on LCBO shelves and continues to experiment with variations of gin. They’re dabbling in canned craft cocktails, with flavors like blood orange and sage gin and soda, as well as concocting a homemade tonic. Currently, they have partnered with another distillery in the province for production, with the long-term plan to add on-site distillation to the brewery.
Thompson and his team are committed to avoiding plastic packaging and are members of the 1% for the planet model, which donates 1% of annual sales to environmental organizations. (In 2020, funds went to groups working to ensure safe drinking water in rural Canada.) The founders of Whitewater Brewing and Distilling met as rafting guides in the region, and the local waterway – the Ottawa River is the subject of much attention. is their playground, as well as a key ingredient in their business.