Small Batch Distilleries Are Thriving

Written by Wayne Newton


Our writers visit Junction 56 and Wolfhead Distilleries


Think of moonshine and you might picture places such as Woodbury, Tennessee, or New Straitsville, Ohio.

But Stratford, Ontario?

Tennessee’s famous Short Mountain Distillery is in the hills outside Nashville, and Ohio holds the New Straitsville Moonshine Festival every Memorial Day weekend.

Now Stratford, sitting in the midst of all those Perth County cornfields, is making a case for Ontario moonshine.

Mike Heisz, a former BlackBerry employee, launched Junction 56 Distillery a year ago, in the former Pounder Brothers Lumber premises at 56 Cambria Street. Heisz saw a craft distillery as a natural evolution of the craft beer scene. Opening a craft distillery became viable with the relaxation of Ontario’s liquor laws.

J56-moonshineWhile creating craft whisky, gin and vodka may have been his first intention, the notion of making moonshine took hold after he attended a conference in Tennessee.

Junction 56 Moonshine is distilled using 100 per cent corn and traditional moonshine methodology to 40 per cent alcohol, a little less than many U.S. moonshines. It means there’s less bite, more flavour, Heisz said. Many compare moonshine to vodka because alcohol dominates the flavour of both.

“We suggest mixing it with juice, such as cranberry, peach or iced tea or use it in a Caesar,” he said.

Both the gin and vodka are sold at the distillery store and at the Stratford Festival, but it’s the rougher-edged moonshine that was first to get the nod from the LCBO.

Junction 56 spirits are also sold at a growing number of southwestern Ontario pubs including the Morrissey House in London, Smackwater Jacks in Grand Bend and virtually every drinking establishment of note in Stratford.

At the distillery store, 750 mL bottles of moonshine are $32.95, while vodka is $33.95 and gin $34.95. Tours of the distillery are $10. There is also space available for private events.

stratford distillery bottlesHeisz, whose grandfather and uncles worked in breweries, said customers were initially leery about moonshine, much like he was himself when introduced to it by a Tennessee distiller. It is an acquired taste and to help in developing that, Junction 56’s website features recipes for Apple Pie Moonshine, Moonshine Caesar, and Peachshine, among others.

It takes one to two weeks to turn corn and grain from his cousin’s local farm into spirits.

Junction 56 — it takes its name from the junction of major railway lines that in 1856 crossed through Stratford from Goderich and London — hopes to list its vodka and gin at the LCBO soon.

Meanwhile, Heisz is also patiently aging a Canadian whisky in small batches. It takes a minimum of three years and should be ready in 2019.

Junction 56 Distillery
45 Cambria St., Stratford

When Wolfhead Distillery opened for business on May 27th, 2016 in Amherstburg Ontario, owners Tom Manherz and Larry Girard did not know what to expect. They had invested 1.7 million dollars to establish the first craft distillery in Essex County since prohibition. To their relief Wolfhead was an immediate success. In the first few weeks they sold out of several of their most popular spirits.

bottle-whiskey-smThe distillery opened with a tasting room, a retail store and a 60-seat restaurant. There is also seating for 90 on the patio.

To add local flavour to the whisky and vodka the distillery uses limestone from a neighbouring quarry to filter and treat the water used in their spirits. They also use a Costa Rican coffee bean that is roasted at Colonial Coffee in Windsor, Ontario.

The whiskies are a blend of 4- and 12-year-old barrel aged ryes. The distillery has not been operating long enough yet to distill and barrel age their own spirits yet, so for now the spirits are being sourced.

Wolfhead’s current list of spirits consists of three premium whisky products and three premium vodkas. All are sold in 750ml bottles, and priced at $34.95.

Wolfhead Premium Whisky — 40% alc/vol. Smooth and toasty with hints of vanilla. Spicy finish.

Wolfhead Coffee Whisky Liqueur — 30% alc/vol. This whisky is infused with locally roasted coffee beans. Pronounced coffee notes balanced with the toasty oak and vanilla flavours.

Wolfhead Apple Caramel Whisky — 36% alc/vol. Like biting into a caramel candy apple. Sweet honey, chocolate and coffee notes.

bottle-vodka-smWolfhead Premium Vodka — 40% alc/vol. This grain-based spirit has been distilled 7 times, resulting in a very smooth taste, clean and fruity notes.

Wolfhead Banana Caramel Flavoured Vodka — 28% alc/vol. Pours a bright yellow colour into a glass. Intense banana and caramel notes with a hint of sweetness on the finish.

Wolfhead Grapefruit Flavoured Vodka — 35% alc/vol. Concentrated citrus notes with a creamy textured backbone. They can’t keep this one on the shelf!

Public tours of Wolfhead’s production facilities are available on the weekends for $12 and include tastings. Advance reservations are recommended.

Wolfhead Distillery
7781 Howard Avenue, Amherstburg


Wayne Newton is a freelance journalist in London who enjoys writing about beer and travel. He is eatdrink’s Beer columnist

Gary Killops is eatdrink’s Wine columnist. He shares his wine tasting notes on EssexWineReview.com

About the author

Wayne Newton

Wayne Newton is a freelance journalist in London who enjoys writing about beer and travel.