He is a tall, strapping man, all of 27 years old, and looks more like the star quarterback than a man who tinkers with high-octane booze all day long. But that’s the path master distiller Geoff Dillon, with degrees in biochemistry and economics, has taken in the heart of Niagara wine country.
Dillon is on the frontline of a taste revolution that is being fuelled by discarded grapes, locally grown wormwood, lavender, all kinds of mint and juniper as well as future crops of rye, grains, hops and the seasonal fruit of Niagara. It is borne of passion, fine craftsmanship and artisanal flare. And it is manifested in fine craft whiskies, gins, vodkas and myriad craft beers that have quickly become part of the Niagara mosaic.
It is being driven by young, passionate entrepreneurs who see the potential among the vineyards, the booming wine industry, and the influx of gourmet food trucks and chefs who have moved into the region to add a little sizzle; a giant jolt of yumminess that you can enjoy once you’re done with that glass of fine Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Or maybe, just maybe, instead of wine.
For Dillon, who opened the doors to Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers in November, it’s all about the extraordinary potential of the region.
“Niagara was such a natural fit for the distillery,” he says. “Between the amazing fruit grown here, the abundance of wineries and the open spaces I cannot imagine being anywhere else. There isn’t anything you can’t have in Niagara. It’s an amazing microcosm of food, landscapes and people and we hope Dillon’s can help play a role in its culture.”
Dillon’s isn’t the first distillery in Niagara. Kittling Ridge in Grimsby, now renamed 40 Creek Distillery, has been turning heads and winning awards for its range of high-end of whiskies for years. But Dillon’s is not attempting to reach that level of production. It is focused squarely on small-batch spirits hand-crafted from its production facility shared by Angels Gate Winery, using the bounty of natural botanicals, herbs and fruit sourced from Niagara.
The location in Beamsville, Ontario was chosen for its proximity to the local ingredients used in Dillon’s spirits.
“This has given us the advantage of seeing farmers every day who grow great stuff in our backyard, and they have made it readily available to us,” says Dillon.
The first distilled products are made from a base of 100 per cent Niagara grapes from Angels Gate that would otherwise be thrown to the ground during the annual thinning process. They are dropped into baskets, fermented and distilled.
Dillon says many of the herbs and botanicals that make up the recipes for the distilled gins, vodkas, absinthe and other products that will be made at Dillon’s are either “grown by us or by local farmers for us. Our grain is sourced locally and we have an abundance of fruit everywhere you turn in the Twenty Valley,” he says.
“The story of our ingredients is the story of Dillon’s. We have access to fresh local product grown by so many amazing people using healthy, responsible practices on some of the best growing soils in the world. These elements are fundamental and without them we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Dillon and his father, Dr. Peter Dillon, a professor at Trent University who specializes in biogeochemistry, are working on the distillery project with the Young family, who own Angels Gate winery in Beamsville.
“From a winery owner perspective, I think that Dillon’s adds significantly to the entire Niagara landscape,” says John Young, president of Angels Gate Winery.
He hopes that the distillery “increases the awareness and attention to what is going on in Niagara” and will “add to and complement the exciting wine industry that is being developed in the Niagara region.”
It also provides another outlet or “second use” for Ontario grape and tender fruit farmers. The grape-based spirit that they use provides the quality base for the various distilled products. But the backbone of the company’s products will be its Canadian rye whisky.
“Most people don’t know that Canadian rye whisky can be (and is) made with as little as zero per cent rye then coloured and flavoured,” says Dillon. “We are here to change that. Our whisky is made with 100 per cent Ontario-grown rye (eventually 100 per cent Niagara-grown) and I know people will be blown away when they taste it.”
Dillon says that with each product they make the aim is to be “honest and open. We not only list all the ingredients used but where they come from on every label.”
The first batch of whisky has been distilled and is now aging in barrels from oak farmed in Ontario. It will take three years before the whisky is ready to buy.
In the meantime, Dillon’s will have a range of products available for sale when it opens its doors. (At the time of writing, it was still waiting for its retail licence and was expected to open at the end of November.)
During a tour of the distillery in late October, the final touches were being made on the elaborate tasting room and kitchen while Dillon was experimenting with different distilled products including the Small Batch White Rye, with a delightful nose of rye, minerals and a touch of citrus; the Small Batch Gin, a mellow and smooth elixir with notes of juniper, herbs, tonic and spice; a chocolate mint spirit and a local version of absinthe, made from wormwood grown by Dillon’s father in his garden, with 65 per cent alcohol and delicious flavours of anise and liquorice with a big kick on the finish.
There will be no spirit that they can’t and won’t make. A big part of the program will see seasonal spirits made from the fresh fruit that Niagara grows including peaches, pears and cherries that will be purchased and processed at Dillon’s, with the pure juice added straight into the still for blending.
Dillon’s will also make its own bitters, tonics and sodas that can be used to mix with the various spirits. At the centre of the experience are the stills that are radically different than what you would find at a large distillery.
“Most Canadian whisky is made in continuous distillation columns while we are returning to copper pot stills,” says Dillon. “We have built the first of its kind, a mashing-stripping still, as well as having two copper columns with variable plates that allow us to precisely create a whole host of spirits.
“A big part is to show people exactly what we are doing and how we are doing it,” he says. “We will show you the grain coming in and the whisky going out. We are using traditional levels of quality while utilizing modern techniques and equipment to create authentic products, and I think people will love them,” he goes on.
The Dillon’s brand is being developed by Insite Design, a Burlington company with deep roots in Niagara. On a visit to the distillery in October, Insite’s Barry Imber was busy getting the tasting room ready for the November opening.
“The concept of the tasting room is to basically walk into the brand — the essence of which is a room that’s part industrial distillery chic, part country general store, and part 1920s road bar. The space is not retro, just reflective, while also being modern and stripped down and simple.
“We hope to shift away from a typical tasting room to more of a bar metaphor. We have created a more theatrical space where Dillon’s can take their time to tell their story and mixologists can engage people in the craft side of the spirits.”
Eventually they hope to expand the experience by allowing guests to utilize the distillery “lab” where people will be able to interact with the distiller and his range of botanicals and fresh ingredients. Not only will they learn about what goes into a natural alcohol product, they can even select ingredients for their own custom distillations or infusions.
Mixologist Nick Nemeth, who has radically changed the drinks business at Bravo Grill in Niagara Falls with his modern and fresh approach to the cocktail, welcomes artisanal producers to Niagara.
“It challenges people like myself,” Nemeth says. “The whole booze tourism thing can happen now. It raises the standard for what people expect when they come to Niagara.”
And it’s not just the emergence of the new distillery that excites Nemeth, it’s also the craft beer industry that has seen two new, small artisanal mirco-brewers begin operation this fall.
Both Silver Smith Brewery and Oast House Brewers were set to open in November down the road from each other on Niagara Stone Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Cian MacNeill and his partners Mike Berlis and brewmaster Kevin Somerville gutted the Forum Gallery antique shop and created a dynamic space for the Oast House Brewery production facility, retail store and tasting room.
There are synergies with the Niagara wine industry, with both Berlis and MacNeill being accredited sommeliers and MacNeill formerly an assistant winemaker at Tawse.
Somerville, 27, who is also the co-ordinator of the brewery program at Niagara College, says there has “never been a better time to start a craft brewery.”
Oast House, like Dillon’s, plans on using as many local ingredients in their beer as they can, and that includes growing their own hops to discover what grows best locally and making seasonal brews with whatever Niagara has to offer.
“We want to be agri-centric,” says MacNeill. “We’re going to tackle the brewing game the Niagara way.”
And, “if it’s not grown down the street, we want it from this country.” That includes malt from Saskatchewan and Canadian oak barrels from Ontario for the vintage, age-worthy beers being planned.
The foundation of the beer program will be the Oast House Barnraiser, a brew similar to a pale ale with a fresh, vibrant feel on the palate and flavours of hops, citrus and tangerine. It’s our “everyday beer,” says MacNeill. They hope to have it on tap at pubs throughout Ontario.
Two other beers that will be made year-round include the Farm House Ale Saison, a Belgian-style beer with a refreshing yet complex palate with spiced pepper notes that pairs well with food; and the Farm House Ale Bière de Garde, which is more malt driven with citrus peel and a touch more residual sugar.
MacNeill says that after that, it’s wide open and the brewery hopes to make a range of seasonal brews with whatever works.
“We’re playing to the availability of the season with a range of styles,” he says.
Visitors to Oast House can tour the brewery, enjoy samples in the tasting room and purchase the wines from the retail outlet. There will also be a growler program where enthusiasts can come in and fill their two-litre containers with their favourite beer to take home.
So, when you add it all up, Niagara just got a whole lot better. It’s no longer just a mecca for Ontario wine lovers. The range of flavours run the gamut from fine whisky and gin to tasty, hand-crafted beers and, of course, every style of wine imaginable.
Now, that’s something we can all drink to.