The carnival-style letters on this North Vancouver light-industrial building say “Distillery,” but omit the words describing the second business that operates there: The Distillery School. With Canada’s artisan distilling scene booming, it’s one of a handful of Canadian courses for knowledge-thirsty potential distillers who want hands-on learning.
In the United States, where the number of small distilleries grew by 15.5 per cent in the past year, craft-distillery sales are up 23.7 per cent by volume and 29.9 per cent by value. In Canada, just 32 small distilleries in 2012 have grown to almost 150 today.
James Lester, the ponytailed co-founder with Richard Klaus of the Sons of Vancouver, describes his own distilling-course experience: “I spent four days in a classroom with 20 other people staring at PowerPoint slides, and I still wasn’t equipped to open a distillery.”
In 2016, he designed a course “not just about opening a distillery, but how to open a distillery.” Among its alumni are four distillers in B.C. (including The Woods Spirit Co., just across the alley), and Manitoba’s first female craft distiller, Jenna Diubaldo, at Number 13 Distilling in Winnipeg.
The school charges $2,999 for five days of intensive instruction in the distillery, with a class of no more than three. There are other distilling courses, with different characteristics. Ontario’s Niagara College welcomed a fall 2018 class to its new diploma program (about $12,000 for eight months, with fewer than 20 students) and Olds College in Alberta offers a 16-plus-week online certificate that includes a one-week field study at a distillery for about $3,500. The Canadian Craft Distilling Institute runs one-week, $2,995 courses at Kelowna’s Urban Distilleries, with class sizes of five to 14. U.S. programs, which can cost US$5,000 a week, can include labelling, excise and other compliance teachings that don’t necessarily apply in Canada.
Alex Hamer, the entrepreneur behind the BC Distilled spirits festival and the Canadian Artisan Spirits Competition, joined the school as an instructor last year, specializing in business planning. After reviewing an advance questionnaire, he talks to each prospective student, to make sure the extremely hands-on course is a good fit. A few arrive with home brewing or distilling experience, but most have a dream of crafting spirits.
“There is some magic that happens in a distillery: it’s a black box for most people. But our students want to know what it’s actually going to be like day to day,” Mr. Hamer says. Pre-course work covers a curated resource list of readings, online blogs and videos.
The curriculum is a 50-50 split between the technical and business aspects of owning a distillery. “We front-load the fun stuff,” Mr. Klaus says, referring to hands-on learning on distillery workflow, equipment and materials sourcing, plus product ideas and recipe development. The intimate class size makes the curriculum somewhat flexible. “If someone wants to spend more time on, say, barrel aging, we can,” Mr. Klaus says.
Mark Chapuis, who attended The Distillery School earlier this year, plans to soon make vodka, gin, whisky and more at Distillerie Mont-Royal. Quebec rules require Mr. Chapuis to demonstrate experience to get a distilling permit, “and the Distillery School time counts toward that,” he says. To get financing, he needs “real-life numbers,” like the school’s startup cost estimates.
Although Canadian winemakers are collegial and brewers are downright collaborative, “distillers tend to hold things a little more closely,” Mr. Chapuis says. “I don’t understand it; the Sons of Vancouver don’t do it and I don’t plan to practice that, either. All small distillers are in the same boat, so we might as well help each other.”
Students can watch, photograph or document anything. “The stills are running all week … [students] can come in here anytime. By the end of the week, people are very comfortable with the equipment,” Mr. Klaus says. “If they’re lucky, they can even see something go wrong!”
Does Sons of Vancouver worry about The Distillery School students copying their techniques? “So what if they do?” Mr. Lester says. “We want everybody to improve, for the whole industry to do better.” Their worst nightmare is for a consumer to try a sub-par product at a farmer’s market or tasting room, and decide they don’t like artisan spirits at all. “In the long run, it’s going to pay off,” Mr. Klaus says.
In the second half of the week, they literally “open the books,” as students peer into FreshBooks files to understand seasonal cost and sales cycles. Mr. Hamer’s business-planning session includes a two-year forecast template that drills down into funding sources, marketing and branding, revenue streams and rules for distillery income reporting.
“We push a lean startup budget so [students] have room for product development and design, and unexpected expenses,” says Mr. Lester, a fan of “flexible, scaleable” plans, who designs and builds much of his own equipment. Former student Jill Rutherford of Fernie Distillers calls Mr. Lester and Mr. Klaus “MacGyvers, although they are too young to understand that reference [to the original 1985 TV series],” she jokes.
Mr. Lester laments the fate of “distillery school tourists” who take endless courses without getting the skills to open a distillery. If not the first or only course, The Distillery School aims to “be the last course people need to take,” he says. That was true for Ms. Rutherford, who “had taken probably 100 hours of courses already. I wanted to touch equipment, practice tasting and work on troubleshooting.”
Along with providing pre-opening feedback on Ms. Rutherford’s draft distillery blueprint and product lineup, the school’s principals are a continuing resource for graduates like her. “I still joke about how I have a red phone line to the Sons of Vancouver if I ever need advice,” she says.
Paul Meehan, co-owner with his wife, Melissa Meehan, of Goodridge & Williams Distilling, applauds the idea of an industry training program that turns out resourceful, versatile employees “who know how to brew, distill and package.” (Making a grain “beer” is the first process in distilling most spirits.)
He dreamed of opening a distillery for 15 years while honing his marketing skills at liquor giants like Diageo and Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits.
His wife and co-owner, pushed him to make the leap: “I can see how this will look in 10 years,” Ms. Meehan said, of a business that took $8-million of personal investment and now employs about 40 people.
“We’re going to be hiring distillers and distillers' assistants: Our goal is to have a much larger legacy business, something that’s important to the community,” Mr. Meehan says.