Step inside the 184-year-old stone building that houses Spring Mill Distillery in Guelph, Ont. and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not your run-of-the-mill new craft-spirits venture. First there’s the 1923 Ford Model T delivery truck parked inside the foyer, a Prohibition-era beauty restored to working condition for ceremonial delivery runs to local liquor stores. Farther inside is the ample bar area and sunken lounge with crackling fireplace and windows overlooking a pretty bend in the Speed River. Most striking, perhaps, are the pair of four-metre-high copper pot stills, the big old-timey kind with goosenecks and Buddha bellies, and the four telephone-pole-sized column stills that rise up to the four-storey ceiling. Custom-made by hand in Scotland, the array of boilers stands in contrast to the modular prefab kits from Germany and the United States found in most microdistilleries today.
But a more curious twist can be found in the fridges behind the bar. In addition to pouring its own spirits, Spring Mill, which is scheduled to open its doors this week, will carry a selection of the chief proprietor’s favourite beers. What else would you expect from a distillery founded by John Sleeman?
Perhaps the most ambitious little Canadian spirits maker to emerge since Forty Creek in 1992, Spring Mill certainly represents no small investment for the 65-year-old entrepreneur, who continues to serve as chairman of Sleeman Breweries 13 years after Japanese beer giant Sapporo took over the Guelph-based public company for an eye-popping $400-million. “To say it is many millions of dollars would probably be fair,” says Sleeman, whose small group of private investors includes master distiller and retired Sleeman master brewer Doan Bellman. And, he adds, that figure does not include substantial restorations made to the historically designated building by commercial landlord Fusion Homes.
For Sleeman, one might say that Spring Mill also represents a strange case of déjà vu. Halfway through the project he learned to his surprise that he was once again not entirely dreaming up something new, but in effect resurrecting a forgotten family business. “I started this project seven years ago because I always wanted to be in beverage alcohol and I love the brewery and I thought, ‘What do I do next?’” he says. “And about three or four years into it, my daughter discovers that the Sleemans didn’t just make beer in 1834, but in 1836, the same guy, John H. Sleeman, decided to build a distillery.”
Archive records revealed that Sleeman’s great-great-grandfather – who had founded a brewery that eventually lost its licence in 1933 for cross-border smuggling – had also built a whisky distillery called Spring Mill in St. Catharines, Ont., 100 kilometres to the southeast of Guelph. (A depiction of that long-demolished enterprise now graces bottles of Sleeman’s new spirits.) “It’s amazing,” Sleeman says. “It’s almost like destiny.”
That wasn’t the only surprising echo of the past. A historical plaque on the wall next to Spring Mill’s current entrance, which had been boarded over for decades until the recent restoration work, reveals another. The once-mothballed building, located in the Ward district of Guelph, began life in 1835 as, yes, a distillery, even coming complete with a trap door and illicit still presumably deployed during the not-so-dry days of Prohibition. “They pulled down the plywood and there’s this plaque,” Sleeman recalls. “And here we are putting a distillery back in the same site 180 years later.”
Coincidences aside, Sleeman has a flair for capitalizing on a good story. He played up the contraband angle to his advantage when re-establishing the brewery in the dreary-beer days of 1988. He even recreated his family’s old recipe for cream ale – secretly stowed away for 50 years by his late aunt Florian – and packaged the brew in distinctive, clear-glass replica bottles based on the family’s old design.
This time around, with fewer family details to go by, Sleeman looked to other long-established distilleries for guidance on how to set up shop. In addition to the Scottish stills made by Forsyths, he also equipped Spring Mill with two custom fermenters made of wood rather than the modern stainless steel. Known as washbacks, the giant vats are common to Scottish single malt and are traditionally made from staves of Douglas fir sourced from either Oregon or Washington. With all the Douglas fir trees in Western Canada, Sleeman didn’t like the sound of imported lumber, so he purchased his own British Columbia wood and had it shipped to a father-son team of washback coopers in Scotland, who handcrafted the vats for export back to Canada.
“It will make us unique in terms of production,” says Sleeman, whose penchant for the low-tech ways of yore extends to his phone – a Blackberry. “I tried with an iPhone and it kept spell-correcting and sentence-correcting, and I’ve got fat fingers and I couldn’t get the stuff to work, so I just went back to a Blackberry because it’s got a keyboard,” he says. “I can’t get any apps on it. I can’t get Uber. I can’t get anything. And the IT guys here are going, ‘John, you really gotta move into the next century.’”
Spring Mill’s first products – a superb, silky-smooth vodka and an impressively bright, crisp gin – are being rolled out to about 25 select Ontario LCBO stores for $39.95, with a bigger-scale, national rollout planned for later in the year. Meanwhile, the whiskies will take time because they must be matured for a minimum of three years in wooden casks, where they will acquire their amber hue.
Given his bullish production plans, hammered out with assistance from consulting firm KPMG, Sleeman figures he’ll run out of barrel-storage space before even the first drop of whisky makes it to market. So, the idea is to build additional warehouse space in the Guelph area, not just for the whisky but also for a fully functioning cooperage that will supply new barrels to supplement the once-used, reconditioned bourbon barrels already coming from Kentucky. Helping with that task will be Sleeman’s youngest son, Quinn, a 22-year-old apprentice cooper. (Ironically, Sleeman’s elder son, the distillery’s manager of sales and marketing, was actually christened Cooper in honour of a memorable tour Sleeman and his wife made to a real-ale brewery cooperage in London 26 years ago.)
Spring Mill’s deep-pocket ambitions notwithstanding, it enters an increasingly populated market. Little more than a dozen years ago, Canada’s spirits industry was virtually the sole domain of a handful of big players churning out such familiar brands as Wiser’s, Crown Royal and Canadian Club. Today there are more than 200 boutique distillers from coast to coast, including Central City and Okanagan Spirits in British Columbia, Eau Claire in Alberta, Two Brewers in Yukon, Still Waters and Dillon’s in Ontario and Halifax Distilling in Nova Scotia. “If we continue to see the rate of growth that we’ve seen over the last probably two years, we’ll certainly see easily another 100 in calendar 2019,” predicts Jan Westcott, chief executive officer of Spirits Canada, a trade group representing the country’s nine biggest players. “It changes almost weekly.”
Whether they’ll all survive, given the painful government markups that in certain provinces can account for more than 80 per cent of a liquor bottle’s retail price, is another matter. Westcott says that while many small distillers “know absolutely nothing about the beverage-alcohol business,” Sleeman has approached the pursuit from another angle. “Because he’s been in the business and he’s built a company, I think he understands and wants to come in at a different level,” Westcott says. “He’s ready to compete right away with pretty much everybody, big and small.”
For his part, Sleeman says his long-term business model is predicated on winning 1 per cent of Canada’s vodka, gin and whisky markets, which account for most of the more than $6-billion spent annually on spirits. He used the same math to create Sleeman Breweries, which quickly blossomed and now controls as much as 10 to 12 per cent of the beer sector in certain parts of the country after swallowing Quebec’s esteemed Unibroue, British Columbia’s Okanagan Spring and Ontario’s Upper Canada Brewing. With Sleeman’s national beer sales force of 230 people working on his side (with Sapporo’s blessing) to knock on retail and restaurant doors to sell spirits, Spring Mill would appear to have a big leg up on most of the small-batch competition.
He might want to consider investing in a faster delivery truck, though.
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