How did Alex Rice’s cup get so full?
If Alex Rice was to write the origin story of the Nova Scotia Spirit Company, he might begin with a conversation that happened over beers with a buddy in Burnaby B.C., or he could begin to spin a tale that involves an old laundromat, a couple of bizarre blue crustaceans and a fisherman trying to hook a helper for the summer season. Either way, it’s the making of an East Coast success story with a growing cast of characters and a few chapters still under development.
“I know it sounds like a contrived story,” says Rice, company president, when we met at Blue Lobster Public House, one of the newer additions to the group’s portfolio. We’re there to chat about the early days of his booming beverage brand and the vision for the future of the company he owns with partners Dan Allan and Evan MacEachern.
Rice was living out west when the idea of a small craft beverage company started to distill. He was born and bred an islander and like most Atlantic Canadians had a strong connection to home.
“Let’s just do something small,” says Rice, reminiscing over that beer in Burnaby with his friend and now business partner Dan, who still lives in B.C. “We were paying attention to the evolving craft beer and distilling business that was really starting to take off everywhere, but especially on the East Coast. We were looking at the trends happening in B.C. and thinking what was happening there would makes its way east.” Before he knew it, he was in Pictou County, N.S. buying an old laundromat to retrofit for distilling, mixing, bottling and capping small batches of rum they called Seafarer Spirit Company.
The name Seafarer didn’t last long. Another craft distilling product in the region had a similar name. Rice and his partners knew there was brand confusion. The needed reset was just another layer of the startup’s legacy. Over breakfast at a small diner in Trenton, not far from their still, the newly minted business partners had spied an employment notice that was posted by a fisherman from Ballantynes Cove, a few miles down the Sunrise Trail towards Antigonish. The note read: “ Seeking fisherman’s helper, must be sober, alert and ready to learn.”
“That was it,” says Rice. “Fisherman’s Helper Rum — makes sense. Ready to Learn Gin — makes sense. And believe it or not it was that same morning I was reading about two rare blue lobsters caught off the coast of Cape Breton. Blue Lobster Vodka — it fits. Believe me, I have been fact checked on this one, but it is legitimately how things happened,” laughs Rice, who likely never gets tired of telling the story about the day the wind caught the sails of the Nova Scotia Spirit Company. “We changed our course of direction and just went for it.”
Their first leg up was a partnership with Bishop’s Cellar, a wine store in Halifax, N.S. They started to bottle small batches of vodka, rum and gin and distribute to their licensees in Nova Scotia. The collaboration lasted for five years and was the training ground to understand what the local market was ready for.
“There were already companies in Nova Scotia making great product. Some of them were making what I call ‘occasion product,’ but we wanted to do things a little different,” says Rice of the vision he had with his partners, including Evan MacEachern who was recruited from a Halifax hospitality group during those early days of business development. Their idea was to create an “everyday product.”
“We wanted to create a local substitution for the big brands. We believed people would be willing to pay a few extra dollars to support a local company,” he says. While he doesn’t disclose the company’s annual sales, he will say that since their first shipment of product to the NSLC in 2015, the company has doubled their top line sales five years in a row with the exception of 2021 when the pandemic impacted their licensees.
Rice believes timing has had a lot to do with his company’s success. In 2018, Rice and team entered the ready-to-drink (RTD) market, the fastest growing alcoholic beverage sector in Canada, which is projected to be in the billions of dollars in the next five years.
For each of the last two years, the company has shipped over 10 million cans of RTD products. They have eight flavours, including the iconic Blue Lobster Vodka Soda and the Rocket, with a flavour profile reminiscent of the popular tri-coloured popsicle. Rice says their newest flavour to be launched this spring will create a sense of tropical travel, something most people are longing for — again, timing is everything.
In 2018, the same year the N.S. Spirit Company launched its sodas, the partners were riding their wave of success with the announcement of the Painted Boat Beer Company, a European-style lager. The distillery reverse engineered its entry into the beer market, where the typical progression has seen brewers capitalizing on the rising tide of popularity of distilled beverages.
Between suds and sodas, the forecast was nothing but clear sailing — until the spring of 2020, when much of the hospitality business in Canada lost whatever wind it had in its sails. However, with the strength of the Blue Lobster brand, Rice says his company still fared well during the pandemic. In fact, RBC used the company as an example of a business that endured during COVID-19. Believing that much of their success has been the result of valued partnerships. Seeing very quickly how their industry partners were struggling, Rice and team crafted their own response, The Big Tip — a $50,000 extension of gratitude to the partners in Nova Scotia and P.E.I. The concept was simple. If you were an industry front line worker and impacted by the pandemic closures, you registered online and within a week you would receive a $50 bill and a voucher for a six pack of Blue Lobster Vodka Soda.
While the program was rooted in gratitude, it demonstrated the company’s incentive for continued innovation and growth.
Prior to the pandemic, the company was working on a plan to enter a different vertical and open a restaurant on the same site as their manufacturing and shipping operations in a converted dairy in Stellarton N.S. After months of delays and restrictions, the company opened Blue Lobster Public House in December 2021.
“It’s been a multi-million-dollar investment to retro-fit and ready for our manufacturing,” says Rice of the venture. “We are super excited to open this facility and I believe it is leading in Nova Scotia where we blended the restaurant and manufacturing.” The eatery has the capacity for 80 indoor dining patrons with an event space on the second floor that can accommodate another 60. The event space has its own bar and windows, giving a view of the expansive patio that Rice refers to as the “beer garden” and will have the potential for up to 200 guests, once it’s business as usual.
Rice has been putting a few extra miles on his vehicle this year after making deals to purchase the Annapolis Valley Cider Company in Wolfville and is about to make his debut as a winery owner after purchasing a property from the Jost family about a kilometre from Benjamin Bridge. He says that his partner Evan McEachern and team plans to put their own unique spin on the current winery experience in the valley…. We have about 1.5-acre block in the vineyard to do something really cool where we introduce food and event space. There are industry leaders in the valley. We intend to take ideas from our travels to other wine regions. We want to make wine approachable and find a different way for people to connect to wine and we want to have fun.”
With his hand on spirits, sodas, lager, cider and wine, Alex Rice’s cup is more than half full and it’s about to runneth over.