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waters on wine

Quinn and Cooper Sleeman, Spring Mill Distillery

From left: Quinn, John and Cooper Sleeman of Spring Mill Distillery.Handout

When the Sleeman family gathered last week to unveil their new whisky to the public, they took a moment to reflect on their past, present and future in the beverage alcohol business. Depending on which timeline you embrace, the whisky launched last week had been three or 186 years in the making.

The spirit went into new oak barrels on June 6, 2019, a few weeks after the new Spring Mill Distillery opened on the banks of the Speed River in Guelph, Ont. (Three years plus a day aging in small oak casks is a requirement for whisky producers in Canada).

“This is the very first batch,” explains John Sleeman, who orchestrated the creation of this state-of-the-art distillery to continue his family’s legacy.

For those taking the longer view, the original Spring Mill distillery was established by Sleeman’s great-great-grandfather in 1836 in St. Catharines, Ont. It was a forgotten part of the family’s history uncovered as Sleeman’s daughter researched her ancestors.

This is the second time Sleeman has revived a family business, following the 1988 rebirth of the family’s historic brewery in Guelph, Ont. The beer business sold in 2006 to Sapporo, which kept the Sleeman name and business intact. Sleeman continues to run the operation.

Spring Mill Distillery and its 1836 founding are credited on the label of the new traditional straight whisky, but the focal point is John Sleeman & Sons, with a logo depicting John flanked by sons Quinn and Cooper, who play active roles in the operation.

Cooper handles sales and marketing, while Quinn is actually a cooper, learning the time-honoured art of barrel making, working on-site to build, maintain and repair the barrels used for aging the various whiskies.

“It is a legacy business,” John says. “The Sleeman brand was well-recognized. Spring Mill wasn’t. We rebranded to John Sleeman & Sons because the boys decided they wanted to work here. Some day, it will just be the Sons.”

The inaugural whisky is made in the style of a wheated bourbon but, since it is made outside of the United States, cannot market itself as such. The flavour is compelling, with a mix of caramel and vanilla that are nicely balanced by spice and peppery notes. It’s smooth and inviting. A whisky you can enjoy served neat or mixed in a cocktail.

Cooper says batches of the traditional straight whisky will be released as the spirit reaches maturity. They are monitoring the casks containing the distillery’s first Irish-style whisky in the hopes that it will be ready for a holiday release. The inaugural single malt whisky needs to age a few more years before it is considered for release. More information is available at springmilldistillery.com.

Corrie Krehbiel, Mission Hill Family Estate Winery

Corrie Krehbiel was born and raised in the Okanagan (the fourth generation of her family to work in fruit farming). Her first wine job was working in the cellar at CedarCreek while Krehbiel was still in high school. That led her to study agriculture and food science and work in New Zealand before returning to the Okanagan to work in 2000.

As head winemaker, she took charge of the cellars at Mission Hill last year, after the departure of Darryl Brooker, who had hired her as assistant winemaker in 2015. She helped finalize all of the organic certifications for Mission Hill’s vineyard and winemaking operation, which encompasses 47 vineyard sites and an extensive portfolio of wines, including the collectible red blend, Oculus, and a growing range of rosé and sparkling wines.

“The move to organics has been a real culture change,” Krehbiel explained last October. “There is a greater need to monitor everything – you need to know every section of the vineyards like the back of your hand.”

The first releases of Krehbiel’s wines include an exciting reserve rosé from 2021 that blends pinot noir, merlot and syrah to produce a refreshing and flavourful pink wine. There’s also the inaugural release of Exhilarat!on Brut Rosé, bubbly made with pinot noir grapes to showcase the berry and melon flavours with a mouthwatering finish. Visit missionhillwinery.com for more information.

Alex Baines, Hidden Bench Estate Winery

Hidden Bench focuses on pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling, with limited quantities of other wines, produced from three estate vineyards in Beamsville, Ont. ​Handout

Alex Baines is gearing up for his first harvest at the helm. A native of Essex County, England, he has been working at wineries and studying wine in Niagara since arriving in September, 2012.

He was just named the first recipient of the Paul Pender Memorial Rising Star Award by the Ontario Wine Awards. Baines was selected by a committee of his peers for demonstrating the qualities that made Pender such a leader in Canadian wine circles – talent, selfless generosity, mentorship and innovation.

The award is especially well-suited given Baines’s first stop in Niagara was working with the late Pender as part the winemaking team at Tawse Winery. (Pender was killed in February while trying to be a Good Samaritan.)

“He really inspired me to follow organic farming practices and terroir focused winemaking,” says Baines, who worked at Tawse for three years, before attending Niagara College where he graduated from the winemaking and viticulture technician program in 2017.

Upon graduation, he joined Hidden Bench, where he recently succeeded head winemaker Jay Johnston who took a position at Tawse Winery.

Hidden Bench has garnered a terrific reputation since its founding in 2003. One of the leading certified organic producers in Ontario, the winery was built to make 10,000 cases each year but has yet to reach that volume.

More than half of its production is based on pinot noir. Chardonnay and riesling are also strong focuses for the winemaking team, with small lots of sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux grape varieties used to create exciting wines each year. The most recent plantings, back in 2016, were gamay.

The winery also produces a range of natural wines under the Rachis & Derma label, which loosely translates to skin and bones. Made using estate grown grapes that are fermented without any additions of yeast or sulphur and bottled unfined and unfiltered, these wines have a different style and personality than the traditional Hidden Bench releases, which is why they are sold under a different brand. hiddenbench.com

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