Celebrating the Spring Mill Distillery – Sleeman Part II

Last year we spoke with John W. Sleeman about the Hollywood-worthy story of his family’s brewing business. Secrets, smuggling, gangs — such is the fodder of the Sleeman family history. It’s an intriguing tale, one that has resulted in an exciting legacy and one of Canada’s most beloved names in beer.

Now, over three decades since Sleeman broke ground on his brewery in Guelph, Ontario, the entrepreneur is taking on a new venture: liquor. Also located in Guelph, the Spring Mill Distillery is situated in the Metalworks Development on Arthur Street. This grand-scale renovation project involved the transformation of an old factory site into a refurbished and modern micro distillery, with retail space and offices designed and built by KHACHI Design Group. A bar and retail area, serving up gin and vodka, officially opened to the public today. And while clear spirits will be the temporary imbibements on offer, a larger master plan is at work. Sitting in barrels within the distillery is an original whisky, which will age over the next three years until it is ready for its much-anticipated launch.

We spoke with Mr. Sleeman on this new venture, delving into the design process, the trials and tribulations of a new facility, and the implications of starting from scratch — no family recipe in hand.

After enjoying several years away from the brewery business, what made you decide to branch out into the business of liquor? How did this venture unfold and how long was it in the making?

While it may seem to the public that I’ve been away from the brewery business for some time, I’ve actually remained involved on a daily basis with Sleeman Brewery as its Founder and Chairman. However, I enjoy building businesses and believe that the spirits world is at a stage where the consumer is interested in a widening variety of products from smaller craft operations. Back in the fall of 2010, I decided to begin the work of putting the business model together. It turned out to be more challenging to put together than I first envisioned, but we persevered, and here we are today, eight years later, about to have that dream become reality.

In 1905, your great-great grandfather opened the Springbank Brewery. Does the name Spring Mill pay homage to him?

My great-great-grandfather John H. Sleeman opened the original Sleeman brewery back in 1834 in the St. Catherine’s area, but then moved it to Guelph in the mid 1800s, where it prospered until 1933. Of interest, he also began a distillery in 1836 on or near the St. Catherine’s brewery site and named it “Spring Mill”. We’ve been fortunate to be able to get that family name back and will pay homage to John H. by naming our new distillery after his distillery.

We understand that this was a collaboration of sorts with the developer Fusion Homes. How did you come to partner with them?

We were originally preparing drawings to build our distillery on the 401 in Cambridge. I was asked by Fusion Homes to look at the old Woods location for possible consideration. When we discovered that the site had housed a distillery early in the 1800s and that Fusion Homes was willing to restore the building to its original glory, we decided to put our plant in that Arthur Street location. Once work began, Lee Piccoli, the CEO of Fusion Homes, indicated an interest in taking an equity position in our business and is now one of a very small group of investors.

KHACHI Design Group was the firm selected to create the interior design package for the distillery, as well as work with Fusion Homes to develop the Metal Works Condominium common areas and the Copper Club mansions. How did you seek out and select Ramsin Khachi to be the designer that would create this new space for you?

As it happens, I have known Ramsin as a personal friend for some time, and it was at one of our dinners that I casually mentioned my distillery business and that I would need a firm to do the store and office design work. I didn’t know he was involved in the Metal Works at that point and once I found that out, working on my project seemed like an obvious next step.

KHACHILIFE Editor-in-Chief, Ramsin Khachi, at Spring Mill.

Did you come to the table with a particular vision already in mind?

I certainly had a vision for how I wanted the facility to look. Thankfully Ramsin agreed, and he and his team have done a masterful job of delivering what we wanted.

The building that the new Spring Mill Distillery will be housed in has an interesting history. What is the story behind the historical building? Was much done to restore the exterior to make it cohesive with the condos attached?

I don’t know very much about the history of the building, but when we saw the structure, it was rather run down. It needed a lot of work, both inside and out. Fusion Homes and our people worked with the local historical society to restore the building as closely as possible to its original condition. The Fusion Homes crews have done an incredible job of restoring the building in a historically accurate fashion while fitting it into surroundings of new construction.

When it came to creating the retail experience, were there any significant existing elements, such as features or focal points, that you wanted to remain in the space?  

It was important to us that the customers in the retail space be able to see the beautiful old original stone walls, and especially the old fireplace. Great care has been taken to have windows that are historically accurate but are modern, to conserve energy. We’re working hard to ensure the space is warm and inviting yet offers a view of what the original structure would have looked like almost 185 years ago.

How did the design develop and evolve during the construction process? Are there elements in the finished project that weren’t part of the initial plan?

The design of the finished restored building was set early on in the project, but as you might expect, there have been some changes necessitated by modern building and fire codes. For instance, because this is a distillery, certain windows must have fire shutters and additional fire escapes needed to be constructed. But the original plan was simply to take the building back to the walls and ceilings that have been there from the beginning. The results are stunning.

Distilling your own liquor has its limitations and red tape. Have there been any setbacks or onerous hurdles to overcome throughout the journey of establishing a new distillery?

When I began this project, I assumed that the 25 years of experience brewing beer at Sleeman Breweries would stand me in good stead for a distillery. However, as I mentioned above, because fire and building codes treat breweries and distilleries differently, we have had some extensive delays and costs that we did not expect. The CRA treats the collection of taxes and the placing of customs bonds on distilleries differently from the way they consider breweries. However, our years of working with the AGCO and LCBO have made their part of the exercise much easier.

How has this process been different from opening a brewery? Would you say that brewing beer for retail purposes is more or less challenging than distilling liquors?

The equipment needed to build and run a distillery is for the most part very different from what you would find in a brewery. We had to have copper stills produced, and they have been custom made by hand for us in Scotland. That company that produced them for us, Forsyths, is a family firm that has been in business since the 1800s and are considered to be the very best in the world at their trade. They manufacture for Scotland’s most famous distilleries and we were very fortunate that they agreed to produce the stills for us. Breweries also have very large, high speed bottling lines to meet demand, and we will have much smaller equipment. And finally, beer is usually ready for customers to purchase within about one month from when the process is started. Whisky, on the other hand, must take a minimum of at least three years in wood before it can be legally called whisky. Some of our wood will be coming from an oak wood lot owned by an Amish farmer near Belleville and will be crafted by the only remaining Canadian Master Cooper into barrels for our whiskies. We will supplement those with barrels from a family cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky. And we will have an operating cooperage inside the distillery to inspect and repair barrels, which the public can witness on their tours.

Sleeman beer was created using an old family recipe. What can you tell us about the recipes for your hard liquors? Was there anything passed on from your relatives, or are these creations entirely your own?

Unfortunately, as yet, we have not found an original Sleeman family distilled spirits recipe book from the first Spring Mill Distillery. For that reason, we went to consumer groups and asked them what they would like us to produce, and then developed modern recipes from that input.

You’ll be starting with gin and vodka, and then eventually whisky after it has aged. How long will the aging process take and how will you reveal it when it is ready?

We will be producing a gin and vodka from the beginning, and once those brands are comfortably in the marketplace, we will start laying down our whiskies. Those products will age for periods of no less than 3 years, and many for considerably longer than that. We plan to produce four distinct styles of whisky for a variety of consumer tastes and will keep the public informed about release dates.

Do you have names for each of the liquors?

The gin and vodka will simply be called Spring Mill, and the whisky will have descriptors and age statements but will still be under the Spring Mill moniker.

Will there be more distilleries in other cities to come?

Our plan is to get this distillery up and running and then begin to look across Canada for other opportunities.