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Still Crazy

Grapes provide raw material for a spirited venture

Written by Jessica Emin

  • Dillon's tasting room, including a chalkboard message from the distiller
  • Dillon's tasting room, including a chalkboard message from the distiller
  • Dillon's tasting room, including a chalkboard message from the distiller
  • Geoff Dillon next to his distillation tanks

 

 

The words GRAIN, FRUIT and OAK greet visitors as they pull into the parking lot at Dillon's Small Batch Distillers. The large hand-painted signs decorate the three adjacent garage doors leading to the production area.

The family name, Dillon's, is painted in cursive on the sheet metal building. The property is embraced, on all sides, by field and vineyard. From the outset, the message is clear: purity and simplicity reign here.

Attached to the garage is the tasting room, washed in white, with large, tall windows that let the light pool onto the concrete floor. The bar, the shelves, the tables and benches are all made with solid slats of hay-coloured wood. Bottled gin, white rye, vodka and flavoured bitters line the shelves alongside Mason and bell jars displaying some of the herbs and spices that are used in production. You can also expect Geoff Dillon, the distiller, or another member of the family to greet you from behind the glassware-lined bar.

Dillon's first encounters with spirits consisted of gazing at his father's wellstocked collection picked up from all over the planet. The love and interest in drink rubbed off on Geoff and he found himself experimenting with winemaking and brewing during his university years. His background in science and economics also proved to be helpful for the business. Dillon's father, Peter, has a master's degree in chemistry and a doctorate in zoology, making him the botanical expert, so to speak, and father-in-law Gary Huggins runs the books.

"We're a complementary business to the wineries and we're making another reason for people to come down to the region." Geoff Dillon

There are an abundance of brewers and winemakers in Canada, but the list of craft distilleries is short. Dillon and his family are now part of that minority, having opened their doors to visitors in early December.

Bottles of Dillon's white rye can now be found on the shelves of the LCBO. Dillon admits he'll be giddy "like a schoolgirl" when, for novelty's sake, he buys his own bottle in the provincial liquor store. Getting Dillon's craft spirit sold in the LCBO was one of the distillers' first big goals — one of the first rungs on the ladder — but there's more to be done. Dillon doesn't want to stop with their white rye; he wants to see all their products on those shelves. That's the dream. That, and making excellent craft spirits.

The Dillon family grew up around Muskoka, Ontario, nearly 300 km north of where the distillery and tasting room now stands in Beamsville. The operation is smack dab in the middle of wine country, along the Niagara wine route, and at first glance might seem an unlikely character to have joined the proverbial party, but it all makes perfect, harmonious sense.

A partnership was forged with certain grape growers to gain access to their fruit and, as Dillon puts it, "it's a win-win situation." To create their grape-based spirits, Dillon's pays for teams to go in and thin the vineyard fruit before it reaches full maturity — a process called green harvesting that is usually required and done at the grower's expense — in exchange for keeping the discarded grapes. One man's trash is another man's 22 botanical craft gin. They started the partnership with four different growers, but are open to team up with anyone who has great grapes, says Dillon.

Another influencing factor in setting up shop on the Niagara wine route was having a bounty of fruit and herbs at their fingertips, explains Dillon. Although they do grow many of their own herbs and botanicals, it is convenient to have the resources of the region. They didn't know what their welcome would be like from the wine folk, but the reaction has been positive, says Dillon. Everyone has been supportive and friendly.

"We're not taking anyone's business, no one is buying our stuff instead of wine, or someone else's Pinot Noir." Dillon says that using grapes to create their spirits is just another way to enjoy the fruit. "We're a complementary business to the wineries and we're making another reason for people to come down to the region."

Craft spirit fanatics can also look forward to Dillon's vermouth and rose gin, which are coming down the pike, but will have to be more patient when it comes to the rye whisky, which has another two and a half years of maturation in oak barrels. The new projects are exciting for Dillon and his partners. With spirits, there are no limits to the experimentation, he says. "The world is your oyster."



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