Earlier this month, Toronto Distillery Co. released 1,452 bottles of its inaugural brown spirit, First Barrels Straight Canadian Whisky. Within two days of release, one-third had been sold despite the only sales outlets being the Junction-area distillery's bottle shop and its website. By press time, it's quite possible the craft operation's entire first run will be sold out.
"There could be some left, since we're doing pretty much zero marketing and relying almost entirely on word of mouth," says Charles Benoit, who along with Jesse Razaqpur owns the all-organic distillery. Selling through a first run is every entrepreneur's dream, of course, but given that Toronto Distillery Co. likely now has to wait upwards of a year for its next batch, that's a lot of delayed gratification.
With craft distillation, the numbers are, almost by definition, maddeningly small. "We have a little artisan hybrid pot still that produces about 23 litres of absolute alcohol per run, which is very, very little," says Razaqpur. "So you have to run that still an awful lot before you get to the point that you can even fill a barrel. And from there you have to deal with things like Angel's Share [evaporation] and leakage."
And then there are the hazards of trying something new. In November, the recently licensed distillery, the first in Toronto since 1933, will release a one-of-a-kind hickory-barrel-aged spirit. Although not a first-barrel release, it will probably still be collectible; Pete Bradford of Prince Edward County's Carriage House Cooperage, who was commissioned to make the special hickory barrel, said he'd never make another on account of the wood being such a pain to work with. This super-limited release of 200 or so bottles isn't likely to last long, either.
Given all these built-in hardships, how does a new venture survive in the whisky business? The answer is that most start off by selling white, unaged spirits, including gin, vodka or "white dog," (a.k.a. moonshine) while they wait for their spirits to age. Benoit says this helps, but other creative approaches are also part of the recipe.
"The big thing is just focusing on tours and consumer education. Every single weekend we do private booking tours," Benoit says. At $25 a head, they'll show you the entire operation and demystify the process of making spirits. "That's been key for us," he adds. "Enough to keep the lights on even, but not enough for us to make the investments we'd like to make."
To ease the burden on themselves and other craft distillers, Benoit and Razaqpur (both lawyers) are campaigning for reforms to at least two major aspects of spirits legislation, with a constitutional challenge to the requirement that craft distilleries are charged an LCBO mark-up, even when selling at their own retail stores. But Toronto Distillery Co. has courted controversy with its latest release, since, by law, all Canadian whisky must be aged for at least three years. First Barrels contains liquor as young as two months and even the oldest spirit in the bottle – 26 months – doesn't meet the criteria. The company's rationale for releasing the spirit early: Razaqpur and Benoit claim their process of using small, new oak barrels accelerated the maturation process so much that the whisky is prematurely ready.
Their process has been the subject of considerable backlash from industry folk, educated consumers and spirits experts on a number of forums including Instagram and Reddit. Aside from the fact that it doesn't seem fair to those who have complied with the law and may set a dangerous precedent, many champion our aging laws as one of the industry's defining features, arguably Canada's greatest contribution to the evolution of whisky on a global level. In 1890, for example, it became the first country in the world to require a minimum mandatory aging period. (Two years at the outset, it has since been upped to three.)
Davin De Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, defends the three-year rule as absolute and unequivocally inviolable. "I think this has the potential to erode the value of the term Canadian whisky and opens the door to all kinds of shortcuts that would diminish the reputation of the category and deceive consumers into believing something is whisky when it is not."
When asked about the controversy, Benoit and Razaqpur simply see it as an opportunity to work with other craft distilleries to change this law.
The golden caramel-vanilla flavour of First Barrels matches its sweet butterscotch aroma, although both fade quickly as the oak takes over on the finish, a result of the new, freshly charred oak barrels. It's borderline bourbonesque – another characteristic that De Kergommeaux takes issue with.
Will First Barrels also be the last barrels of Toronto Distillery's Canadian whisky? Probably not. The chances of changing the definition of Canadian spirits may be slim but, by their next release, Benoit and Razaqpur should finally have some of the spirit that's reached the age of majority.