Inside Still Waters, Ontario's first micro-distillery
Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein, co-founders of Still Waters Distillery, are playing a waiting game. Because Canadian liquor laws require that Canadian whisky is aged at least three years before it can be sold, the duo, operating a small micro-distillery in Concord, Ontario, are patiently waiting for the day that their single malt, rye, and corn whiskies will be ready for sale.
Their oldest whiskies, casked in late 2009, won't be ready until the end of this year, so until then, they wait. In the meantime, however, the duo has hardly been sitting around twiddling their thumbs.
While they've been waiting on their whiskies, they've distilled an award-winning single malt vodka. Unique in that it's essentially distilled from the same spirits they use to make their whisky (then put through the still once more and filtered), Still Waters' malt vodka is incredibly smooth and retains a semi-sweet malt flavour. I had no problem sampling the product early in the afternoon on an empty stomach, but you don't have to take my word for it: Still Waters Single Malt Vodka was awarded a gold medal at the 2011 Spirits International Prestige (SIP) Awards competition in San Diego, California — a blind tasting judged by consumers.
Like their whisky, Still Waters' vodka is hand-made in small batches using a custom-made copper still that they ordered from Germany, which was then shipped over in pieces and assembled in their distillery "like a massive IKEA project," quips Stein.
In addition to their vodka, Stein and Bernstein have also released a blended whisky they created using a little of their own product and whiskies sourced from other Canadian distillers. The result, Still Waters Special 1+11 Blend Canadian Whisky, has also been well-received and was awarded a 91 at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge in New York this past March, which roughly translates to "this stuff is good."
And while the distillery's founders are happy that their early products have received critical attention, they admit that their healthy sales — mainly south of the border thus far — have also been encouraging. "We are trying to run a business, after all," says Stein, noting that the creation of both their current products was largely motivated by the inherent difficulty of investing considerable capital into a product they can't sell for three years.
As for what may happen when their whiskies are ready, only time will tell but they're both optimistic, noting that their regular testing has been encouraging. I sampled their single malt whisky as well as their rye and corn whiskies as they taste coming directly out of the still, a step in the process known as "new make" before the substance takes on any of the colour, smoothness, or subtlety it'll get from cask-aging.
While the product at this stage is quite harsh and strong (this is essentially moonshine), even at this early stage and even with my inexperienced palate, it's easy to tell there are some interesting things happening here and that these will be well worth the wait.
Thanks to the success of their first two products, the guys from Still Waters have created a considerable buzz as they wait to release their primary products. "The interest has been astronomical" says Bernstein. Still Waters has the distinction of being the only micro-distillery currently operating in Ontario, and the allure of hand-made, small-batch, craft booze already has aficionados and fellow alcohol-enthusiasts talking about the impending release of their whiskies.
Until then, interested drinkers can pick up the blended whisky at select LCBOs for $34.95 a bottle and, as of Monday April 30th, you'll also be able to pick up a bottle of their malt vodka for the same price.
If you find yourself in Concord, Still Waters' on-site retail space is open Monday to Friday and the distillery is available for private events and tastings upon request.
Photographs by Paul Aihoshi