Ontario Craft Distillers

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Discover the Local Talent

Ontario’s small-batch distillers are known for creating incredible spirits with amazing quality and distinctive flavours. Meet four renowned local beer producers that branched out into distilling and are now handcrafting spirits definitely worth exploring.

Spring Mill Distillery:
A Family Tradition
of Excellence

The Sleeman family’s brewing heritage goes back to 1834, when John H. Sleeman opened a brewery in Guelph, Ont. His great-great-grandson John W. Sleeman resurrected the family brand in 1988 and rebuilt the legacy to become the third largest brewer in Canada. Two years ago, inspired by the growing trend of craft spirits, Sleeman revived another part of the family heritage: distilling. He founded Spring Mill Distillery in a restored historic stone building in Guelph and approached spirits with the same authenticity that led to his family’s brewing success. Sleeman embraced traditional distilling techniques, investing in handcrafted copper stills from the renowned Forsyths in Scotland — which makes stills for Scotch giants like Glenfiddich — using barrels and authentic mash bills from Kentucky and bottling spirits by hand. “It’s really important to our family that our last name stands for quality,” says Sleeman.

Of course, to be considered Canadian, whisky must be aged for three years, so while waiting for the first Spring Mill whiskies to mature, the distillery released its lineup of white spirits, starting with its premium Spring Mill Distillery Gin and Vodka. “We are grain-to-glass and like to buy our grains from local farms to support local. We use red winter wheat from Western Canada to make our spirits softer,” says Sleeman. The Ward Series liqueurs, named for Guelph’s Ward neighbourhood, followed. “Our head distiller, Doan Bellman, has incredible skills. He created a spiced liqueur for the holiday season that was so good people requested we make a liqueur for summer. Bellman came up with a coffee liqueur made with 100 per cent ethically sourced beans, and it’s popular on ice.” What’s next for Spring Mill? A 100 per cent rye whisky, a haskap berry liqueur and an Irish-style spirit are all coming soon.

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Collective Arts: A Fusion of Craft & Art

Collective Arts has been racking up fans for its innovative craft brews since 2013. Two years ago, the Hamilton, Ont., brewery brought that same spirit of creativity to crafting spirits. “Gin was always at the top of the list because it’s all about the ingredients, and you can play around with it and create so many different flavours,” says founder Matt Johnston. Crafted using the pot still method, Collective Arts Artisanal Dry Gin and Rhubarb & Hibiscus Gin debuted in 2019, and Plum & Blackthorn Gin followed in 2020. “Most gins are light and juniper-forward, but ours are more robust,” explains head distiller Matt Howell. “We use unique ingredients, like fresh citrus peel instead of dried in our Artisanal Gin for a brighter, more refreshing character, and cardamom and black pepper to give our big, fruity Blackthorn gin lots of spice.”

What’s on the outside of the bottles is also unique. Collective Arts is known for showcasing artwork on its craft beer cans, and it’s carrying on that tradition with its spirits, commissioning local and international talent to paint its bottles with limited-edition artwork. “The Collective Arts label peels off cleanly to reveal the art,” says Johnston. “The idea is to use the bottle as a piece of art and reuse it — some restaurants repurpose them as water bottles.”

As Collective Arts delves further into spirits, stay tuned for ready-to-drink gin cocktails and more exciting new gin flavours.

Mill Street’s Small-Batch Spirits

Toronto’s Mill St. Brewery got the idea to craft its own spirits in 2013, when brewmaster Joel Manning visited Germany and tasted bierschnaps, a schnapps-style liqueur made with beer. “He got really excited about the concept and brought it to Mill Street,” recalls distiller Matt Orton. Mill Street created its own Tankhouse Bierschnaps at its location in the historic Distillery District before turning its focus to small-batch gins, including its Citrus Gin and Botanical Gin, both crafted in a copper pot still. “There’s a little variability batch to batch, but that speaks to the craft aspect and that idea of enjoying something that is individual,” says Orton. The small-batch approach is paying off: at the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the Citrus Gin scored Double Gold. “It has a bright citrus fruit flavour and is more of a sipping-style gin. I like it in a Martini, and it’s perfect in a French 75.” Mill Street’s Botanical Gin, which has an herbal, spiced character, took home Silver at the competition. “It’s a classic G&T gin — also great in a Negroni — and really lends itself to a Gin Mule cocktail.”

Mill Street is working on new canned gin cocktails, which are slated for release in 2021. “I’ve also got some ideas for expanding into other spirits, like liqueurs,” says Orton.

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Whitewater Distilling Company's Sustainable Approach

Whitewater Distilling Company was created by the team behind Whitewater Brewing Co. Its founders got the idea to get into brewing on a whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, while sitting around a campfire at night drinking local craft beers from Colorado and Arizona. “We were reading the cans and they’re made with local ingredients and sustainable packaging and we thought it would be cool to open a brewery ourselves on our river at home,” recalls founder Christopher Thompson. Their original location on the Ottawa River opened in 2013 and Whitewater found success crafting beers with local hops from nearby farms in sustainable packaging. In 2019, the team expanded beyond brewing and realized a long-time dream of crafting spirits. They experimented with 26 different recipes to create Paper Boat Gin. “The paper boat symbolizes our imaginary journey down the Ottawa River and into the ocean,” he says.

Made in small batches with 12 botanicals including black pepper, orange peel and coriander, Paper Boat Gin is velvety and versatile, complementing a variety of flavours without overpowering them. “Its smoothness makes it a great choice for a Martini and it also lends itself to fruity, spicy and sour cocktails,” says Thompson. In keeping with Whitewater’s vision, the 100-percent-recyclable bottle is made with glass and cork and free of plastic. “We’re really committed to sustainability and a member of 1% For The Planet, so one per cent of our sales is committed to water conservation and goes to safe drinking water in Canada.”