Alcohol production may be considered a recession-proof business, but it wasn’t business as usual for independent spirit producers. Navigating the pandemic delayed opening plans and posed construction obstacles, and their relationships with restaurants changed as liquor laws were tweaked. And don’t forget how many responded to the need for hand sanitizer. All this has kept the spirits scene more dynamic and exciting than ever. Here, a look at how four local distilleries that pivoted with the pandemic — and what’s waiting in the stills.
The founder and CEO of Almonte’s Dairy Distillery, Omid McDonald, thought the pandemic might close down LCBO stores, which could shutter their operation completely. Luckily, neither of those things happened; in the past year, they have tripled their staff from six to 18. “I don’t like benefiting when other people are having a rough time,” McDonald says. Fortunately, the business was able to benefit others as well by providing hand sanitizer to the Ottawa Hospital, city of Ottawa locations, and government departments.
McDonald assumed that the large hand sanitizer manufacturers would be able to fill the increased demand for the product, but early on, he got a call from the Ottawa Hospital saying they needed more and they wanted gel sanitizer rather than the liquid kind (the latter being easier for distilleries to produce). Right off the bat, Dairy Distillery turned about 10,000 litres of Vodkow, their signature vodka made from milk permeate, into hand sanitizer. With the continued demand for hand sanitizer and because the distillery reduces 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 size and quadruple capacity. Instead of a few thousand litres of milk permeate, the distillery can now take up to 30,000 litres at a time and is one of the larger distilleries doing this in Ontario. McDonald describes the growth as stressful in and of itself in pandemic times but says it kept staff employed and busy.
Spirit 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 other Almonte businesses (Fulton’s maple, Hummingbird Chocolate, and Equator coffee) for twists on their Vodkow Creme Liqueur. They will continue to produce sanitizer and, as things open up again, welcome visitors at the distillery for tastings in the friendly town of Almonte.
One of the newest distilleries in the region, Dunrobin Distilleries is a venture between Mark Watson and Adrian Spitzer, who met at Glebe High School 40 years ago.
Both lifelong entrepreneurs, they were getting ready to launch their first joint venture in the spring of 2020 when both the federal and provincial governments put out the word that they were looking for distillers to make hand sanitizer. The duo quickly realized that their small still on Watson’s farm in Dunrobin could not keep up with the demand. But they had a new 2,000-litre still waiting in the wings (destined for their yet-to-bebuilt facility in Stittsville), and Beau’s Brewing Co. was stuck with kegs of beer that restaurants could no longer sell. The new still found a home at Beau’s facility in Vankleek Hill. Watson and Spitzer worked with the Beau’s crew to take the alcohol out of the beer, making enough hand sanitizer to donate to essential businesses and many hospitals in the region, even winning an award for Social Entrepreneurship from Ottawa Business Awards for their partnership.
Though they seemed to launch with hand sanitizer instead of their planned spirits, three of their products — Canadian Whisky, Artisanal Gin, and Artisanal Vodka — are already on the shelves at the LCBO. They also sell a popular Earl Grey Gin, for which Watson and Spitzer tried 15 different versions of their recipe before landing on their blend of 12 botanicals. As they make use of their larger still, which remains at Beau’s, they continue to use ingredients from the Dunrobin farmland to test recipes and make bitters and extracts on the farm. On top of all this, they’re looking forward to opening a new facility in Stittsville after many pandemic delays.
“I look back at our business plan, and last year doesn’t count!” Spitzer says with a laugh. Despite the obstacles in getting their new location built, he looks forward to opening a sleek retail store, tasting room, and mixology bar and welcoming guests to their sunset deck.
ARTIST IN RESIDENCE DISTILLERIE
Pierre Mantha, owner of Artist in Residence (AiR) Distillerie in Gatineau, is eager to expand his microdistillery operations into Ontario, but delays in all things construction-related have been an obstacle. Mantha is grateful that AiR’s sales didn’t take much of a hit.
“You’re depressed, you drink. You’re happy, you drink,” Mantha reasons. But the logistics for starting construction on their new site in Ontario have been disastrous, he says. After a long wait to break ground in Hawkesbury, he’s looking forward to supplying the Ontario market and welcoming spirit enthusiasts to the 17-acre property in October 2022.
Because of interprovincial liquor laws, Ottawans currently have to cross the river to find bottles from AiR in the SAQ, and Mantha is looking forward to bridging that gap. The Gatineau distillery is predominantly gin-focused, with flavour profiles ranging from local honey to wild blueberries to citrus, as well as canned gin and tonics. The plan at the Hawkesbury distillery includes a variety of gins as well, but Mantha is keen to focus on whiskey made with local corn and spring water.
Mantha had just begun exporting AiR’s Waxwing Gin, along with a couple of spirits, to Colombia, where his wife is from, and was a sponsor of the carnival in Barranquilla when the pandemic hit. Not long after that, the government was asking for production to turn to hand sanitizer, which AiR made and donated to hospitals in the Outaouais, as well as other non-profits 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 kids eat,” Mantha explains, adding he hopes to establish similar philanthropic partnerships in Hawkesbury.
WHITEWATER DISTILLING COMPANY
Whitewater Distilling comes from the folks 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 area.
“We have a really ambitious team, and we know that not everyone is a beer drinker,” he says, chuckling. As enthusiasm built around creative cocktails at their brew pubs, the logical next step seemed to be making their own spirits.
After 27 different recipe formulations, more than two years of preparations, and a few months of pandemic-related delays, the distillery division launched with their Paper Boat Artisanal Gin in August 2020. In the short term, the plan is to remain gin-focused; Paper Boat is already on shelves in the LCBO, and they continue to experiment with variations of the gin. They are getting into canned craft cocktails, with flavours such as blood orange and sage gin and soda, as well as concocting a house tonic. Currently, they’ve partnered with another distillery in the province for production, with the long-term plan to add distilling onsite at the brewery.
Thompson and his team are committed to avoiding plastic packaging and are a member of the 1% for the Planet model, which gives back 1% of annual sales to environmental organizations. (In 2020, the funds went toward groups working to ensure safe drinking water in rural Canada.) The founders of Whitewater Brewing and Distilling met as rafting guides in the area, and there is great care and concern for the local waterway — the Ottawa River is their playground, as well as a key ingredient in their business.