Pioneering Spirit

By: Tod Stewart

The warm afternoon sun is making late-September feel like mid-August. I’m here at Dillon’s Distillery with one of its pre-bottled Manhattans in hand. Sure, the busy Queen Elizabeth Way highway – a stone’s throw away – is adding some traffic noise to the serenity of the whole experience, but I can live with it. I mean, I’d rather be near the highway with a drink than on it, given how traffic can turn this whole stretch of the Toronto-Niagara pipeline into vehicular sludge.

  Located in Beamsville, Ontario, about a half hour’s drive (depending on the aforementioned road conditions) from Niagara Falls, Pure Spirits Distilling Corporation – aka Dillon’s Distillery (established in 2012) – is one of Canada’s pioneering small batch distilleries. Founded by Geoff Dillon and his father, Peter (both of whom hold degrees in biochemistry), the distillery appears to follow a philosophy that is both focused and fun…and guided by a real passion for distilling.

  “I grew up with a father who was passionate about single malt scotch whiskies,” confesses Geoff Dillon. “When it was time for me to go to university, I decided to follow in his footsteps by studying biochemistry. During my studies I fell deeply in love with the art and science of distillation. Brewing and winemaking were one thing, but when it came to distilling, I discovered that the possibilities were endless.”

  Like many distillers in Canada, Dillon was intrigued by the concept of creating an authentic Canadian rye whisky (i.e., one actually made from rye). But by Canadian law, whisky needs to be aged a minimum of three years, so, as with many other distillers, Dillon kept the wheels on by diversifying its portfolio…and it would appear there’s nary a spirit he hasn’t taken a run at.

  “We’re big into the experimentation side of things, so there’s always new spirits going into bottles,” Dillon enthuses. And rather than operating in a self-contained bubble when it comes to measuring the success of this experimentation, Dillon relies on external input.

  “We have a program at Dillon’s called the ‘Sipping Society,’” Dillon explains. “Through this program we bring together a group of like-minded spirit connoisseurs who have a chance to trial some of our innovations before they hit the shelves.”

  Of course, being a small pioneering entity in a world inhabited by much bigger players introduced a number of challenges to overcome. These included dealing with not only punitive taxation rates (since they lightened somewhat in Ontario, but still not to the extent as in a few other provinces) but some rather odd rules that were in place at the time Dillon’s was getting underway.

  “You needed to have a larger-than-5,000-liter pot still to be allowed to open an onsite distillery retail store,” Dillon recalls. In Ontario, if we didn’t have that, we would have had only one channel to sell into.” Dillon’s team came up with a pretty clever workaround. Having a 5,000 liter still in addition to separate mash tanks would have been a prohibitively costly and space-hogging affair. So, in cooperation with the German company, Carl GmbH, the world’s first 8,000-liter hybrid mash tank/pot still was developed to save space and money while eliminating the need for separate components.

  However, distilling requires more than just equipment. It takes dedicated and knowledgeable staff.

  “Building a team who believed in the concept and vision was our priority,” Dillon recounts. “We are in this incredible area of Niagara, which is not just surrounded by wineries and breweries, but winemaking and brewing education programs. There is a local distillation program at the Niagara College, where we are able to pull some of the most knowledgeable people from the beer, wine and spirits industry. Once we had a foundation of strong and passionate people, we had to determine what we were going to make and how we would source the ingredients.” To that end, Dillon availed himself of local ingredients largely supplied by local farmers.

  “It has always been a priority for us to work with local farmers,” he reveals. “I feel very lucky we made Niagara our home. We are surrounded by our farming community that grows fresh ingredients for us so we can make the best and most unique spirits.”

  Besides developing a close bond with the farming community to source local ingredients, Dillon’s stays clear of any artificial flavors. “So, if it’s a year when yields are lower or something didn’t grow, it can limit our production,” Dillon admits, adding, “We can’t make peach schnapps unless we can get our hands on the right peaches.”

  When it comes to actual production, Dillon’s “keeps things simple.”

  Dillon reveals that every spirit “…is made from one of two bases: rye grain or grapes. We work with a handful of local grape-growers to grow enough wine grapes annually to make our Unfiltered Gin 22 and our grape-based vodka. This grape base gives a unique viscosity and mouthfeel to the spirits that only grapes can provide. Just about every other spirit we produce comes from rye grain, grown locally by our friends in Brant County, about an hour’s drive west of the distillery.”

  “For flavoured spirits like strawberry gin, we begin with our rye base then finish by macerating fresh, ripe strawberries grown by our neighbors across the street,” he said. “We do something similar for our other fruit spirits, like peach schnapps, cherry gin or even the walnut amaro.”

  The garden in front of the distillery that began life to supply the ingredients for Dillon’s absinthe has grown over the past decade and now supplies botanicals to a number of spirits, ranging from lavender to hot peppers.

  Even the barrels Dillon uses for maturation are unique. While some ex-bourbon barrels are used, other casks are made by a local cooper. “He makes them just for us,” Dillon reveals. “We pick the trees, and then they are made locally just up the road.”

  Besides small-batch distillates, Dillon’s crafts an ever-growing range of premixed cocktails with the assistance of, in Dillon’s words, “…some superstar bartenders that work exclusively for us. They help us make unique, delicious and proper cocktails.” There’s also a mind-boggling range of bitters, with flavors ranging from rhubarb to wormwood, fennel and ginger. “At Dillon’s, we are all about cocktails,” Dillon maintains. “Most cocktails have some form of bitters in them. From the very first day we opened our doors, we knew bitters needed to play a big component in what we are doing.”

  Definitely a man with a vision, Dillon has watched  the distilling landscape evolve around him, with his distillery being at the forefront of many positive changes. The evolution has been rapid over the decade that Dillon’s has been in business, to the point where Ontario has 45 such establishments, with that number continuing to grow. If you factor in “contract” or “virtual distillers,” that number swells to over 150. He also has plans to introduce a handful of new products to market, including melon gin, a seven-year-old single-cask rye, a cask strength rye and, as of this November, the return of a brandy made from local grapes. 

  Distillers and spirit aficionados south of the border might consider visiting their northern neighbor and drop into Dillon’s for a professionally made cocktail or a spirit sampling. I was fortunate enough to try the following:

  Dillon’s Niagara Peach Schnapps (Batch 4, 24% ABV):  Lighter, drier and more natural tasting than what you’d typically find, with subtle, fresh peach aromas, a clean, balanced palate and a long finish.

  Dillon’s Cherry (Batch 28, 35% ABV):  A gin base infused with local cherries, then lightly sweetened. A distinctly juniper-scented gin base isn’t overpowered by the additional aromas of sour cherry/black cherry. The slight bitterness of the fruit harmonizes well with the sweetness/spice of the base spirit. Try in a cherry G&T or a French martini.

  Dillon’s Single Grain “Three Oaks” Rye Whisky (Batch 20, 43% ABV):  Geoff Dillon’s dream was to create an authentic Canadian rye whisky, and he’s done so admirably here. Made from a mash bill of 100 percent Ontario rye and aged (as the name suggests) in a combination of new Ontario oak, new American oak and first-fill bourbon barrels, it shows classic, spicy/dusty rye on the nose, with a hint of dried citrus peel. Warm, round and balanced in the mouth, with layers of fruity/spicy rye, vanilla and caramel, it’s quite gentle while remaining elegant and complex.

  Nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake is a quaint little town that’s definitely worth visiting. In fact, stay for a few days for some winery/distillery/brewery visits, great food, interesting shopping options and beautiful scenery. I’d highly recommend making the 124 on Queen Hotel and Spa your base because it has great amenities and is close to everything – like Treadwell, a can’t-fail choice for local “farm-to-table” cuisine and an outstanding local/international wine selection. Although “authentic Italian” has come to mean many things, Ruffino’s Pasta Bar & Grill is definitely your place if you’re looking for the real deal. Formerly the acclaimed Stone Road Grille, it was reimagined (due to COVID, of course) as something a bit less formal, but every bit as enticing. It’s about a 15-minute walk from 124 on Queen (though the walk home might be a bit slower).

  Cheers, and I hope to see you up this way soon!

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