“Never stop experimenting.” It's Peter Dillon's personal philosophy and it's at the heart of what they do at the newly opened Dillon's Small Batch Distillers in Beamsville.
It's also a very fitting ethos because if there's one place in the world of alcoholic beverages where experimentation and alchemy come together it's distillation. Naturally, the best way to get a feel for what Dillon's is all about is to experience it through a visit to distillery.
The distillery sits just above the QEW on the north side in a building wrapped in utilitarian corrugated metal siding. The words grain, fruit and oak mark the three truck bays and give you a hint what what is held dear inside the building. Inside Dillon's has done a wonderful job transforming what is essentially a warehouse into a warm environment you want to spend time in. Dubbed the “sipping room,” it's filled with plenty of natural light, wood, exposed copper pipes and subtle clues of what they're all about like: barrels, lemons, limes and juniper branches. It all works nicely with the hand-drawn look of the branding, which is reminiscent of an old apothecary. But what really stands apart about a visit is Dillon's genuine hospitality and enthusiasm to share.
That hospitality is courtesy of the Dillon family, specifically co-owner and distiller Geoff. Dillon's core team is also a small one and consists of Geoff along with his father Peter and Geoff's father-in-law Garry Huggins. They're a very close-knit group as Geoff Dillon explains. “I’ve got such an amazing family that I couldn’t be happier sharing this experience with them. What’s the point of doing something exciting if you can’t share it with the people you love?” While Huggins brings a background of management consulting and keeps things focused, it's Geoff and Peter Dillon who provide the creative touch with Geoff doing the day-to-day distilling.
Geoff is also the distillery's greatest ambassador, gladly giving any new visitors a complete tour and tasting. “It was the realization that work and passion could be one. I love what I’m doing and I get a chance to share that feeling with people who walk in the door,” he says talking about his aha moment of starting the distillery.
One of the first things that strikes you as unique about Dillon's is its location. Unlike a winery where you need to be located where grapes grow or a brewery where you want to be closest to your customer base to help ensure the product is at its freshest, you can locate a distillery virtually anywhere. To maximise profits that usually means an area where the land is cheap and plentiful so you can set-up a large-scale operation. But just like there has been (and continues to be) in the North American beer market in recent decades, there's a movement towards what is dubbed craft distilling. Rather than huge volumes that can stock bar shelves and liquor stores around the world, the emphasis is on smaller batches showcasing unique, flavourful and local twists.
Although there have been artisan distilleries who have located in Ontario wine country in the past few years, Dillon's is the first to truly embrace all that that entails. For example the aforementioned “sipping room” is set-up with a long bar complete with glasses—similar to what you'd see in a Niagara winery tasting room. But they've taken things a step further and make both its gin and vodka using local grapes, initially from Angels Gate but also from other Beamsville Bench wineries. Most distillers use a grain like wheat, rye, corn or a combination for them to make spirits as they are relatively cheap, the supply is fairly consistent and they keep well for longer-term storage. But being in Niagara, Dillon's thought it was important to build “close relationships” with their neighbours, chief of which was “being able to use local fruit from local wineries that would have been dropped and wasted during the annual thinning process,” says Geoff Dillon. Being able to build those relationships with local farmers, who Dillon's sees neighbours and partners in what they do, made choosing to locate in Ontario's fruit basket a no-brainer. That community building approach permeates beyond the core products into the whole line-up with local pears staring in one of its five flavoured bitters as well as local fruit, botanicals and rye contributing.
“Our focus is around using local ingredients and a blend of traditional methods with new technology to create new and unique spirits. I can guarantee you will find something here that you can’t find anywhere else,” says Geoff Dillon when asked about what set Dillon's apart from other small Ontario craft distilleries.
Technology is a key aspect to what Dillon's does. And you can see that in the heart of the operation, its two types of still: column and pot. As the name suggests, a column still is long and slender and works like series of pot stills in a continuous loop, heating your base to concentrate the alcohol, condensing it at top and repeating this process until it reaches the desired potency. It's efficient and effective and produces a clean, high-potency, neutral spirit. A copper pot still is an older, simpler design and tends to result in a lower-potency spirit that retains more nuances and texture, but it also leaves behind more impurities. So it requires a deft hand and careful attention to be paid to only get the desirable heart of a spirit and filter out the less pure heads and tails. In the right hands a cooper pot lends a certain character and soul to bolder oak-aged spirits. That's why it is used for Scotch and Cognac where as the relatively delicate and neutral vodka and gin are almost always column distilled.
Dillon's pot still has a bit of different twist to it. They approached Germany's oldest still fabricator, Carl, to create the first mash/stripping still it had ever built. When you make a spirit like whisky, a mash is made before distillation. For a mash ground grain is soaked in warm water so that the sugars come out and the added yeast can convert the sugar to alcohol. But to get something as strong as a spirit, the resulting liquid needs to be distilled to concentrate it as even the most robust yeasts die before the alcohol percentage can exceed the low-twenties. As you can imagine there's still a lot of solids in the resulting liquid from the mash, so it's prudent to do a quick distillation to concentrate volume and leave behind those undesirable solids and dead yeast. Not only does that result in a better cleaner base to distill, but this stripping process saves a lot of time removing the need to re-distill a batch numerous times to get the desired purity and potency in the finished spirit. Their mash/stripping still gives the Dillion's the flexibility to do both processes in the pot before they move things to the smaller spot still which has adjustable plates to give them control to craft a range of spirits, explains Geoff Dillon.
Science just doesn't underline the equipment at Dillion's, it's the essence of its approach to distilling. “We are science oriented here at Dillon’s and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” explains Geoff Dillon. One key example is its partnership with the MSU-LTU Artisan Distilling program on special projects. It allows Dillion's to draw on “knowledge and experience from some of the best distillers in the world,” says Geoff Dillon. Their first collaboration is the 100% Canadian Rye Whisky Dillon's is aging in Canadian Oak barrels from the Canadian Oak Cooperage until 2015. That scientific curiosity to experiment is also engrained in both Peter and Geoff Dillon's backgrounds. While biology was one of his majors at the University of Western Ontario, Geoff's formal education in distilling comes from Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London, England and he further refined his craft learning a few things along the way during what he calls “working vacations” at 45th Parallel Spirits and Bruichladdich.
But talking to Geoff you can sense the inspiration to explore the craft of distilling and his deep love of spirits is very much shared one he developed with his father. Peter Dillon is a professor with a Masters in Chemistry and works as a scientist, but in his spare time he's captivated by spirits. He's been an avid collector of whisky for decades picking up bottles of the best he encounters during his work-related travels. But another spirit very near to his heart is gin. It showcases the array of exotic herbs and botanicals (another of his interests) like no other drink.
Nowhere can you see that better than Dillon's current flagship spirit the Unfiltered Gin 22. While they were waiting for the distillery license to be approved, the father and son team collaborated and diligently refined test batches until they settled on this recipe, which includes 22 botanicals (most gins tend to top out in the high-single digits to mid-teens). They've also left it unfiltered, which means a slightly cloudy appearance, because it helps retain the botanicals' essential oils. It was brilliant decision, as the result is a gorgeous, layered flavour profile with some beautiful intensity. When you put your nose to the glass you're first greeted with the distinct piney smell of juniper—always a welcome and good sign of a proper and traditional gin—which is legally required to be the dominant botanical taste in many countries. Underneath the juniper there's the prototypical secondary gin notes with layers of lemon, lime and orange, the spicy-citrusy note of coriander seed, the licorice signature of anise and warming flourish of cassia or cinnamon. But Gin 22 also has a third more delicate layer of botanicals. I tasted a beautiful floral layer with lavender and vanilla (two welcome but unusual botanicals in gin) an exotic pepper-citrus-cardamon note that was evocative of grains of paradise and even a subtle gingery flavour on the finish. Speaking of the finish it's a pleasant one that lingers long with those multi-layered botanicals. Leaving it unfiltered also lends a pleasantly substantial mouthfeel to Gin 22. Slightly vicious without feeling heavy, It's texture is reminiscent of a good Alsatian Riesling and is closer to jenever (the Dutch precursor to modern gin) in feel than the typical London Dry you find in North America. Overall it's a fantastic gin and is amongst the best you can get in the country, making it easy to see why it's Dillon's top seller.
Dillon's current line-up also features a vodka they call Method 95, which serves as the base for the gin before it is steeped with juniper and redistilled with the 22 botanicals. It's also amongst the best vodkas I've ever encountered. That's probably partially to do with the very uncommon choice of grapes rather than the much more typical wheat, rye, corn or occasional potato used for a vodka's base. But it probably has more to do with the choice to filter it just once —a move that is the antithesis of most premium vodka where superiority is touted based on the number and type of filtrations employed. Method 95 has a subtle, nuanced, floral and fruity flavour profile with hints of white cherry and even grape which evokes young grappas. There'a also a pleasant licorice note to the core and a touch of pepper, earthy herbs and nuttiness. Both the finish and texture don't quite reach the gin's level, but with that lingering licorice note and a texture closer to 2% milk than the skim of many of its competitors, it's a vodka worth seeking out and one suited for sipping. Tasting it side-by-side with other premium vodkas left me with a conclusion that they feel thin, have a harsh bite and taste and smell of little more than rubbing alcohol in comparison.
White Rye rounds out Dillon's current core product line and unlike the gin or vodka it's made in the pot still. It is essentially the 100% Canadian Rye Whisky they have aging in Canadian oak, only it hasn't seen any time in barrel. Like a conventional barrel-aged rye that distinct aromatic spicy rye note makes its presence know, but it also possess an intriguing herbal-honey agave aroma that's a ringer for blanco tequila. But once you take a sip the bold peppery-caraway combination that sets rye-based whiskies apart, really takes over and lasts strong through to the finish. Again the finish and texture fit in with the rest of the Dillon's family, but this time they're bit more warm and rustic. It would make a great alternative as a nightcap if you're craving that distinct rye note, but aren't quite up for the rich toffee and caramel flavours that come with barrel aging. Still if you're heavy handed on it and light on the vermouth it has the stuffing to stand in for a traditional rye in a lighter take on the Manhattan or Vieux Carré.
The last item in Dillon's line-up will make home bartenders and cocktail lovers rejoice. Dillon's crafts a line of six distinct bitters: cranberry, pear, orange, lemon, lime and DSB (the house recipe). Since you only use a few dashes at most it's tempting to forego them, but they add balance, round out flavours and essentially provide that added touch of seasoning that makes your drink's flavours pop. The pear has been particularly popular, but I think the lemon, lime, orange and DSB with their fruit, citrus and spice notes are the most versatile partner with a wide range of cocktails. If you're looking to pick-up just one to try start with the DSB or lemon.
But as impressive as Dillon's line-up currently is, it only promises to get better in the in coming months. Taking that never stop experimenting credo to heart, Dillon's currently has some test batches of beautiful limoncello and orangecello, which staff hope to release in time for summer (paperwork permitting). In the future you can also expect some some eau-de-vide from Niagara fruit, absinthe and a sloe gin—a spirit traditionally made by infusing gin with tart sloe berries. The latter was particularly impressive with a nice combination of red plum, pomegranate, cranberry, cherry, cinnamon and Mandarin notes. It should also be a welcome addition to Ontario, which only has two sole gins (one of which has been discontinued) on LCBO shelves. Dillon's test batch was made by infusing its gin with sloes Peter Dillon brought back from a visit to Blewbury, Oxfordshire, England. The distillery is currently looking for a local source for berries or plants, but haven't been able to source one—they aren't common in North America.
Dillon's is also working on getting its products into the LCBO and GTA-area bars and restaurants that share a like-minded philosophy when it comes to spirits. But in the mean time the best way to experience Dillon's is to visit the distillery in Beamsville where they will be happy to share their line-up and show you around their corner of Niagara. “We’d love to meet you and show you what we do, where we do it and what we’re all about. We want to spread the word about craft distilling in Ontario and hope to change the way you think about spirits,” says Geoff Dillon.
Dillon's Bitters: Cranberry, Pear, Lemon, Lime, Orange & DSB
Price: $9.95 for a 100 mL bottle
Dillon's Method 95 Vodka
Price: $17.95 for 375 mL or $34.95 for 750 mL Bottle
Dillon's White Rye
Price: $19.95 for 375 mL or $37.95 for 750 mL Bottle
Dillon's Unfiltered Gin 22
Price: $18.95 for 375 mL or $36.95 for 750 mL Bottle
Dillon's Small Batch Distillers
4833 Tufford Road, Beamsville, Ontario
Hours: Friday-Sunday 11am-5pm