You could easily pass the unassuming barn off the highway in Ontario’s Niagara Region and miss the alcohol alchemy going on inside.
Or you could see Geoff Dillon, an unassuming 28-year-old local, sporting a black tuque and working around the barn with his black poodle Sam.
Or you could look past the bottle he offers with its unassuming label and not get around to trying the gin he produces.
But you’d be missing the story of Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers, operating out of that modest blue barn in Beamsville, nestled between Hamilton and St. Catharines. Running a distillery has been more than just Mr. Dillon’s obsession since college. The business is also a blend of his father’s and father-in-law’s disparate interests.
Sitting in the distillery’s simply decorated and welcoming sipping room, Geoff describes how his father Peter Dillon, an environmental chemist who teaches at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and specializes in pollutants such as acid rain, always emphasized to his children to do something in life they love. For the father, that meant continually experimenting with ingredients in the kitchen. In Peter’s words, “cooking, beer making, wine making, all these things are just another kind of chemistry, in a way.”
He’s also a collector, amassing a selection of one bottle from every whisky distillery in Scotland. He’s nearly there with 90 to 95 bottles, roughly 20 short of a full collection. This passion seeped into Geoff’s own interests, he says.
On the other side of the family, Geoff’s father-in-law Gary Huggins is a Toronto entrepreneur who has created and managed businesses in the technology and consultancy sectors including DHR International Inc. and Insight Business Consultants.
Even if Geoff hadn’t married his daughter Whitney, Mr. Huggins says he has a soft spot for anyone so obviously following his life’s passion. Both fathers have been working with Geoff since the distillery opened in late 2012, Mr. Dillon doing R&D and experimenting with flavours in a little lab built for him at the distillery, and Mr. Huggins handling much of the business side as chairperson.
Mr. Huggins, who still works in Toronto as a business consultant, pushed the younger Mr. Dillon early on to write the business plan, and helped bring in some friends to provide extra financial backing, topping off the money the family was investing. They expect to bring in more backers in the coming year as the young company grows. “He had this dream and he was very passionate about it, and as I learned later, his father was passionate about it. And I thought, ‘My gosh, that’s a great combination,’” Mr. Huggins says.
Among only a few notable craft distilleries in Ontario, Dillon’s Small Batch has already cultivated a growing market.
The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) sells Dillon’s gins and rye in its liquor stores across the province. Williams-Sonoma stocks its bitters throughout North America. And the company’s spirits can be found in most upscale Toronto bars, Geoff says. The company is now looking to make inroads along the Atlantic seaboard. On the cusp of turning a profit, Dillon's is anticipating a big year coming up, when its first batch of whisky aged the necessary three years – as required in Canada – will become available.
Geoff describes it all with a young man’s staccato. And it’s in the back of the barn with the towering distillery where he becomes more animated.
“I love every single aspect of the way it was built and how it works,” he says over the gentle rumble and sloshing of the tanks and pipes at work. “We designed it with a German firm [distillery fabricator Carl GmbH]. It’s a complete one-off. There’s never been another one exactly like it. We designed it for exactly what we want.”
Dillon’s ethos is to use local ingredients as much as possible. The gin is distilled from locally grown grapes. Wineries in the region love this. Dillon’s is buying some of the harvest the wineries would otherwise throw away. And instead of eliminating flavours from the alcohol to get a purer taste, Dillon’s is all about keeping flavours in and adding hints of others.
Geoff points to the distillery’s network of curving pipes angling out of the two main vats and tall vertical columns. “You see that stainless steel elbow? That open pipe? We have four different elbows up there, so every day we can climb up, move elbows around. Right now we’re distilling right up to 94, 95 per cent alcohol. Tomorrow we can go, ‘You know what? Let’s move some elbows. We don’t want it to get that high [in alcohol levels]. We want to make a gin, we don’t want to lose flavours. We’ll bypass both of these columns and it’ll just be a pot still, we’ll put some botanicals in the helmet and make a gin.’
“The next day, we want to do a pear eau-de-vie [distilled from Niagara pears]. We want mid-70s-per-cent alcohol. It’s going to get us a smooth product that has lots of flavour. So we move some elbows around,” Geoff says. “We’ve got so much freedom with this guy, we can do anything.”
This is home for Geoff, although his actual home is an old schoolhouse on an adjacent property, which he is renovating with his wife, who is studying to become a family doctor.
After attending the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., for a double major in biology and economics, Geoff held a series of jobs, all with the end goal of starting the distillery, he said. One year he worked in equities trading in Toronto, another he worked a harvest at a winery, all while gradually introducing himself to the Niagara business community.
“I fell in love with the idea of distilling, understanding the process behind it and how interesting it really is. I never really thought we would make a business out of it. But then seeing this explosion during university in craft distilling around North America, mainly in the U.S., it started to become more and more real.” That’s when he says he realized, “I think this might actually work.”