He is a tall, strapping 27- year- 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 has taken.
Dillon (with degrees in biochemistry and economics), along with his father, Dr. Peter Dillon (a professor at Trent University who specializes in biogeochemistry), opened the doors to Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers late last year. Using the bounty of natural botanicals, herbs and fruit sourced from Niagara, the distillery is focused squarely on small-batch spirits, hand-crafted at the production facility shared with Angels Gate Winery.
The location in Beamsville, Ontario, in the heart of Niagara wine country, was chosen in part for its proximity to the local ingredients. “Niagara was such a natural fit for the distillery,” says Geoff Dillon. “Between the amazing fruit grown here, the abundance of wineries and the open spaces … it’s an amazing microcosm of food, landscapes and people and we hope Dillon’s can help play a role in its culture.”
“From a winery owner’s 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.”
The first products from Dillon’s are made from a base of Niagara grapes that would otherwise have been thrown to the ground during the annual thinning process. Instead, they are dropped into baskets, fermented and distilled at Dillon’s.
The grape-based spirit provides the base for the various distilled products, including Dillon’s 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 in Dillon’s father’s garden, with 65% alcohol and delicious flavours of anise and licorice).
But the backbone of Dillon’s product line will be its Canadian rye whisky.
“Most people don’t know that Canadian rye whisky can be (and often is) made with as little as zero per cent rye then coloured and flavoured,” says Dillon. “Our whisky is made with 100% Ontario grown rye (eventually 100% Niagara-grown), and I know people will be blown away when they taste it.”
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 sell. In the meantime, Dillon’s has a range of products available for sale at the retail store.
There will be no spirit that Dillon’s cannot and will not make. A big part of the program will see seasonal spirits made from fresh Niagara fruit including peaches, pears and cherries, purchased and processed at Dillon’s with the pure juices added straight into the still for blending. The distillery also makes its own bitters, tonics and sodas that can be used to mix with the various spirits.
At the centre of the experience at Dillon’s 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 of Dillon’s 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,” Dillon says.
“The story of our ingredients is the story of Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers. 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 to Dillon’s and without them we wouldn’t be doing it.”
RICK VanSICKLE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org