The folks at Willibald Farm Distillery might say that time hasn’t been on their side — and that’s all right with them. At the distillery located near Ayr, about 30 minutes south of Kitchener, they’re in the habit of just taking things slow. Even after the investment in start-up costs, they weren’t in a rush to get to market. Their success is a marker of the painstaking nature of the planning and distilling process they developed.
“We probably went through close to 100 variations of recipes before we decided which one to use. We were confident then that we had something people would really like,” says co-owner Jordan van der Heyden.
The 29-year-old and his business partners and co-founders — brother Nolan, 25, and long-time friend Cam Formica, also 29 — have set themselves up on 100 acres of the van der Heyden family farm, formerly a livestock operation. The partners, who grew up together in Ayr, wanted to test their entrepreneurial mettle and “find something different that we could use the land for,” according to Jordan. Their own time-dependent version of gin was the immediate answer. They grow grains, lavender, and other crops, and keep honey bees. “With everything we grow, we make spirits,” he says.
Nolan and Jordan both went to University of Waterloo. Formica attended Lakehead. That brought business, engineering and environmental science to the Willibald management table, along with some distilling education in the U.S. Distilling is Nolan’s responsibility, and he is broadening his understanding of the art and science of the process with schooling in Scotland. As for the name, it’s an inside family joke that everyone is now happy to share: Willibald is Jordan’s and Nolan’s grandfather’s middle name. “We were looking for something unique. He’s never been too fond of it, but he’s warmed up to it as a business name and wears a shirt with the brand,” says Jordan.
It was 2012 when the trio was searching for a way to use the farm, recognizing that there were a lot of breweries out there. “We realized distilling was still in its infancy at that point. Only Dillon’s in Niagara and Still Waters in Toronto were in business at the time.” Today there are about 20 distilleries up and running.
The Willibald facility is an old barn, refurbished but maintaining its post-and-beam character. There’s a retail store, and they give tours and offer complementary tastings. Until very recently, distilleries could not offer glasses of spirits in the way that breweries and wineries were able to. “We just got that privilege a few months ago and are serving cocktails at the farm. That’s been a great thing for us,” says Jordan. They’ve added a wood-fired oven and have started serving food.
Gin itself has a storied history. A grain distillate, it is initially distilled to a desired alcohol content and then distilled again along with an infusion of juniper berries and a range of herbs and botanicals. Water is added to establish the correct alcohol concentration — usually 80 to 95 proof — with the hope that the spirit will be aromatic and fairly light. At Willibald they have gotten that down pat, if their success is any indication. They started with the trial-and-error of home distilling and learned the theory side in the U.S. Those were the easy steps. “It took us a few years to get the necessary permits and zoning amendments,” says Jordan. The farm is zoned for agriculture, but distilling is considered an industrial process. “The authorities were extremely supportive, but because it was a new concept it took a long time.”
Imagine a drink made from corn, rye and malted barley. Gin, by law, has to include juniper as a flavour component. “We also add caraway seed, grapefruit peel, cardamom, coriander and angelica root. Those ingredients flavour the gin, and from there we barrel it, and that’s where the colour comes from,” says Jordan. The blending process only takes about 10 days. Then comes the barrel aging — a time commitment of many months. After aging the contents of the barrels are blended and then bottled for shipping. The copper pot still capacity is 1,000 liters. Willibald distills anywhere from three to five 50-gallon barrels of whisky or gin a week. The gin, which is constantly being distilled, is available at LCBO year-round. “Our first seasonal release will be later this summer. That will be in the realm of 1,500 to 2,000 bottles.”
The current revival of the cocktail menu at bars and restaurants, and the bespoke, crafted impetus it carries, has meant that mixologists are constantly scanning product lines for the new and unique. Willibald fits the bill. At the time of this writing Willibald gin was the only barrel-aged gin available at the LCBO. “Gin is typically an unaged spirit. It’s clear and never been in oak, traditionally. But our gin looks a lot like whisky with its dark amber colour, and that’s because it spends anywhere from four to ten months in oak casks.” The results are what he calls a “whisky character” that bartenders are interested in because they can’t get it elsewhere. “It makes a phenomenal whisky sour,” he adds.
Like new lines of crafted tequila, a barrel-aged gin like Willibald lends itself to being sipped neat. For consumers who have never thought of drinking gin straight that’s something of a perceived obstacle that the company is trying to change. “Barrel aging really mellows out the spirit and cleans it up a bit, making it suitable if you do want to drink it neat or on the rocks. It’s quite smooth. There has been a remarkable appetite for good quality gin in an older demographic of customer we are seeing, say from the 1950s and 1960s era.”
Identifying the exact nature of “local” is a bit of a mug’s game: it can mean different things to different people. But the concept does play a part in Willibald’s marketing strategy. “What we find is that a lot of the restaurants that are focussed on quality cocktails don’t necessarily put as much emphasis on local. They’re more concerned with the quality of the product,” Jordan says. That makes sense, of course — and that’s the way it should be — but he adds that this region has been supportive of this new entry into the marketplace, for being both local and of high quality. “In Waterloo Region, we’ve been able to play up the local angle, but of course it isn’t the issue when selling outside the region, in Toronto for instance.” He cites examples of where Willibald is being served in the region, including Red House, The Belmont Bistro and Grand Trunk Saloon, to name only a few. “We do really well at the Cambridge Mill,” he adds. “They’re extremely proud of listing where they get their ingredients.”
Willibald currently doesn’t have the competition that breweries and wineries do. Even at the LCBO, the product is unique, and that’s been good. They target establishments with specialty cocktail menus rather than venues that focus on volume. Yet even some better bars and restaurants may not yet have what Jordan calls “the craft-spirit mentality” like they have for craft beer. “Once they’ve tried it, it’s a good sell for us,” he says.
There’s more Willibald to look forward to. Gin accounts for only about one-third of their production. Whisky makes up the majority. However, that spirit, by virtue of Canadian law, must be aged a minimum of three years. “We haven’t been able to release any yet. We’ve been in production for a little over two years now, so in the next year or two we’ll have some whisky,” Jordan says. There are plans for spiced whisky with apple. “We’re also doing some work with the lavender we grow and we have honey bees at the farm.” That means Willibald, unique with its inventive gin, is continuing along the creative path they’ve forged for themselves, but they’re not rushing things. “We are playing around with quite a few things,” says Jordan. “We have the type of still that allows us to do anything with spirits, from gins and whiskies to fruit brandies. Those are the products we’re interested in pursuing. But because it’s aged, it takes time.”
Willibald Farm Distillery
1271 Reidsville Road, Ayr
Brogan McNabb is a Toronto-based fashion and lifestyle photographer. broganmcnab.com