Nice day for a white whisky

In Niagara, Dillons is the latest to make craft booze with a local bent.

When distiller Geoff Dillon wants to experiment with new recipes, boxes of pears and plum arrive from neighbouring fields at his Beamsville distillery. When his father, Peter Dillon, wants to increase their selection of cocktail bitters, he scrapes bark from a walnut tree near a winery where they once lived.

Parsnip gin, Subversives Distillers. Their Piger Henricus gin starts with juniper & coriander, then veers off into peppery root veg. $30.

Pine vodka, 66 Gilead Distillery. Crisp and clean like vodka should be, but with a hit of citrusy Canadian pine. $39.

Single-malt vodka, Still Waters Distillery. By using 100% malted barley instead of grain, the vodka gets a sweeter, creamier profile. $35.

Home-grown distilling like this hasn’t existed in Ontario since the 19th century heydey of Gooderham & Worts. But Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers, which opened in late 2012 making gin, vodka, rye whisky and bitters using local ingredients, is banking on a small-batch revolution in the spirits industry. Particularly when it comes to rye.

“Canadians don’t make rye whiskies anymore, they’re all blends,” says Geoff Dillon. “If you want to buy the real thing, you get something like Sazerac from the States.” Last year, Dillon barrelled his first 100% rye grain whisky. But three years — the legal cask-aging requirement for Canadian rye — is a long time to wait for a product in whisky-thirsty Ontario, which has seen a 264% increase in sales over the last decade. How do you make money in the meantime?

Forget the barrel. Dillon’s released The White Rye, an unnamed whisky in April ($37.45 at LCBO stores) and it’s a very different experience from the sweet spirit Canadians know: spicy, with a heady tequila or grappa nose, the ersatz moonshine can be enjoyed neat, but it adds a wild element to an Old Fashioned. In May, it took home a gold medal for unaged whisky at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

In addition to the unnamed rye, Dillon’s current product roster includes a gin, a vodka and a series of cocktail bitters based on local ingredients. The latter may prove a deft move as a growing number of home bartenders seek alternatives to the ubiquitous Angostura. Dillon’s sells six varieties, including pear, lime and cranberry bitters. “We’re doing unique gins, so we wanted to offer other experiments,” says Dillon.

The ranks of the craft distillers is growing in Ontario, but success won’t come easy. The province has some of the strictest distilling regulations in North America, many of them harkening to Prohibition days. To open a retail store, for instance, a distillery must have a 5000-litre pot still, ten times the size used by craft producers. Dillon circumvented this by converting a 5000-litre mash tun — a vessel used to ferment grain — into a hybrid tun with a compartmentalized still. Then there are the challenges of selling through a closed system like the LCBO, where wine and craft beer producers enjoy higher profit margins than distilled beverages. Dillon’s along with craft distillers like Concord, Ontario’s Still Waters and Prince Edward county’s 66 Gilead, are calling on the government to even the playing field.

Every distillery has its story, and this is the one Dillon’s hopes to share some day: how it helped change provincial laws, build an industry reliant on local products, and managed to have fun doing it.

What does one do with White Rye?

Fair question. The brown stuff can go straight in your mouth. Unaged white rye can too, but the petroleum notes give it a harsher vibe. A good bet is to treat it like tequila and pair it with citrus. At Hamilton, Ont.’s Bread Bar, they made a basil margarita:

• 5 muddled basil leaves
• 1 oz. white rye
• 1/2 oz. triple sec
• 1/2 oz. simple syrup
• 1 1/2 oz. lime juice

Add ingredients over ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a salt-rimmed glass.

This article originally appeared in Canadian Business Magazine, September 20, 2013.