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Spirit of industry

Tourism and the buy-local movement inspire new East Coast distilleries

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Photo: The Newfoundland Distillery Co.

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For almost a decade, John Dunfield and a group of friends in Sussex, New Brunswick had an investment group. They knew each other since they were kids or they were fishing buddies. When they met, they’d drink a few pops, talk, and invest, mostly in stocks. Then in 2016, PotashCorp suspended production at the town’s Picadilly mine, resulting in the loss of over 400 jobs.

“We thought, ‘What can we do with this pot of money?’” Dunfield says. “So, we changed from investing in stocks to investing in our community.”

The group, which includes Dunfield, Carmen Blois, Chris Celeste, Grant Corey, Durck de Winter, Rene Hache, Greg McCollum, and Peter Norrad, opened Sussex Craft Distillery with Dunfield as its master distiller. The town was once home to the original production facility of Sussex Golden Ginger Ale, and New Brunswick has a strong agricultural economy, so the focus on locally-produced beverages seemed like a natural fit. After researching other regional distilleries, including Ironworks Distillery in Lunenburg, N.S., the group started distilling in 2017.

Sussex Craft Distillery produces its spirits in small batches. It makes Northern Comfort, a maple rum liqueur using Crosby’s molasses and maple syrup from Steeve’s Maple Syrup in Elgin, N.B. Its white rum, Ward’s Creek White, is a fresh and unaged rum. “The rum is something our group has an affinity toward,” Dunfield says.

Matt Rogers is president of Bishop’s Cellar in Halifax. His private liquor store carries products from several regional distilleries, including Barrelling Tide Distillery in Port Williams, N.S., Coldstream Clear Distillery in Stewiacke, N.S., and Authentic Seacoast Distillery in Guysborough, N.S. He watched the industry grow, especially in the last five years. He says there are two factors behind the growth in distilleries like Sussex and many others: increasing support of the buy-local movement and tourism.

“Folks are attracted to the industry,” Rogers says. “It’s a fun industry. This is a bloom-growth period and a lot of folks are trying to find out where they fit.”

Rogers says distilleries face particular challenges. Their products are consumed less. A bottle of rum, for example, will stay on a shelf longer, meaning less consumption than wine and beer. And the prices of products from local distilleries are often higher than those products from international brands.

He says the distilleries that diversify will do well. He points to Coldstream Clear Distillery producing a ready-mixed vodka soda and Compass Distilleries in Halifax offering a luxury Airbnb vacation rental on the top floor of its distillery.

“That model to me has a lot of staying power, especially in rural areas,” Rogers says.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, The Newfoundland Distillery Co. opened last year. Like many distilleries, it uses local ingredients, including barley produced in Newfoundland. More recently, it gained attention for its Seaweed Gin made from seaweed harvested from the Grand Banks. This gin won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2018, while the Cloudberry Gin won silver. Its products are available at Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor stores and its Seaweed Gin is at the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation. The company plans on expanding across the country and around the world. But local flavour has made it a hit.

“Everyone in the province has been immensely supportive and we’ve sold more than expected,” Wilkins says. “If it’s made locally, they want to support it. They can identify with it more closely.”

Steinhart Distillery in Arisaig, N.S, about 30 minutes north of Antigonish, opened its doors in 2014. Thomas Steinhart makes several products, but it’s his gin that’s gaining international attention. This past winter, his gin was shortlisted for the 2018 Icon of Gin Awards and he’s the first distiller from the Americas to be inducted into the British Gin Guild.

This summer, he started selling food as well. And he rents out a few cabins that sit on the property on a hill overlooking the ocean.

Steinhart says it’s a change in regulations that has helped distilleries flourish. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t have done what I’m doing here,” Steinhart says. He can now sell directly to restaurants, sells at local festivals and farmers’ markets, and can give samples to visitors who come to his distillery. “It’s worth it now.”

In Sussex, Dunfield and his team are looking at creating new products, including a Canadian whiskey and maybe even a schnapps. Dunfield says he’s spoken with local farmers about that idea. But he’d like to see businesses in the community work together to make Sussex a destination for tourists and locals.

“If we can help generate interest in the community, get people out to have lunch and supper in the community, that’s what it’s all about,” Dunfield says. “This is something people are interested in and it will fly.”

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