TORONTO — A boom in craft distilling in the United States and increasing demand from curious millennials acquiring a palate for well-made spirits have inspired a burgeoning microdistillery scene in Canada, with at least 100 upstart companies now operating across the country.
“It’s growing in leaps and bounds,” says independent whisky expert and reviewer Davin de Kergommeaux.
“The major distillers are beginning to look at these microdistillers as incubators for product and for people. We’re already starting to hear rumours about some Canadian microdistillers being acquired.
“People are looking at them now and taking them very seriously.”
Given the flourishing craft beer and artisanal wine markets, it’s not surprising small-batch spirits were next.
“I think part of all that is the desire for the consumer to find unique product. Locally produced product is very big, the whole locavore movement,” says Barry Bernstein, who launched Still Waters Distillery, specializing in whisky, with friend Barry Stein in 2009 in Concord, Ont., just north of Toronto.
“A lot of that’s being driven by the younger, non-traditional market. Millennials are very interested in spirits and seeking out unique product if the story behind it is intriguing.”
Successful microdistillers have sought one-of-a-kind niches to stand out from established big-time distillers, agrees Ottawa-based de Kergommeaux, whose book “Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert” is coming out this fall.
“Nowadays the trend among consumers is to drink less but to drink better so people don’t mind spending a little bit extra to get a product that is unique,” says de Kergommeaux.
“There’s no major producer in Canada that will make something like absinthe, for example.”
The family-owned Pemberton Distillery in British Columbia is certified organic and specializes in a potato spirit, the base for their vodka, gin and absinthe products.
“Since we’ve started we’ve seen just a huge difference in the knowledge that consumers have when they show up at our distillery,” says Tyler Schramm, founder and master distiller, who also makes a Scottish-style single malt whisky along with a small annual run of apple brandy.
“They’re far more aware of the production process and the different spirits today than they were eight or nine years ago when we started out. All of that stuff helps generate interest and awareness of what we’re doing and why it’s a little bit different.”
Just as adventurous foodies are demanding new flavours and dishes that push boundaries with ingredients, so too are mixologists, who want new components to add to their libations.
Small producers can take the time to work with ingredients that may be a little more expensive and in different combinations that aren’t of interest to a major producer, says de Kergommeaux.
“It doesn’t matter that it tends to be a more expensive product. They’re looking for really good product to put into their cocktails and consumers are looking for those things too,” says Bernstein, adding they’re also cultivating markets outside Ontario such as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, which both have great cocktail cultures.
But distiller wannabes shouldn’t rush into buying a still, these seasoned spirit makers advise.
Bernstein, who worked in the software industry, and Stein, who ran a facility for a large multinational company, took two years to develop the business plan for Still Waters Distillery and figure out distribution. Regulations differ in each province.
Schramm committed himself in 2005 to an idea he’d come up with four years earlier. He earned a master’s degree in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland in 2006-07 and then wrote a business plan and arranged financing before launching in 2008.
Mike Heisz, who is president of the Ontario Craft Distillers Association, planned for four years before leaving his engineering job at BlackBerry to open Junction 56 Distillery.
“On the surface it seems like a very fun thing to do, but the reality is it’s a huge amount of work to actually make a distillery happen and function on a day-to-day basis,” Schramm says.
“I think if people knew exactly what they were getting themselves into there might not be as many people distilling as there are right now.”