Written by Janet Davies
One of the new owners of 66 Gilead Distillery spent 20 years working as a paramedic, most of that time on emergency response helicopters, before taking over a craft distillery in The County. It’s an unusual career path, but he’s an unusual guy. Jeremiah Soucie is co-owner with three very important partners – his wife Sarah Waterston, her brother Michael Waterston and Michael’s partner Maria Hristova. Sarah is a pediatrician in the Ottawa area while Michael and Maria live in Toronto. “Michael works in the commercialization of medical imaging and Maria is a director of an IT firm.” And Jeremiah is now head of distilling at an established, about to be rejuvenated, craft distillery.
Jeremiah went into emergency medical services straight from high school in New Brunswick, doing some of his training in Pittsburgh and ultimately becoming part of Ontario’s critical care transport program. He spent 15 years administering mobile intensive care on Ottawa’s air ambulance helicopter. How did that lead to making whisky, vodka and gin? “I have a strong interest in gastronomy and the culinary world, too” he says with a grin, adding that he once considered becoming a chef and has done some culinary training. No surprise, then, that he was attracted to the PEC culinary scene. “But it’s funny,” he says, “initially I thought in terms of food, rather than the drinks side.”
Let’s back up seven years to when Sarah, Jeremiah, Michael and Maria began meeting up in The County, the perfect halfway spot, to explore, unwind and relax together. They rarely came in the high season. “We thought of The County as much more than a summer place,” he says.
ACQUIRING A DISTILLERY
Jeremiah’s interests in food brought him to a culinary boot camp and a cheese technology course, to experimenting with molecular gastronomy and then to exploring mixology. While learning the art of crafting cocktails Jeremiah experimented with herbs and botanicals and started to make his own bitters and liqueurs. Looking for a change professionally and watching the proliferation of craft wineries and breweries, Jeremiah began to work towards starting a craft distillery in Ottawa, supported by Sarah, Michael and Maria. “I researched while on a one-year paternity leave with our second baby.” He had time to think; in fact he followed his paternity leave with a self-funded year off. Before long he knew he would not return to the helicopter and transport medicine. “While you’re in it, the stress seems normal, but then you stop and realize what a toll it takes on you.” Having two children (now six and two years old) made a difference. “It’s harder to separate yourself from things in that job when you have kids of your own.”
While working towards starting a craft distillery in Ottawa, the opportunity to take over The County’s first and only craft distillery, 66 Gilead Distillery, arose. It felt like fate. They knew the distillery well, and had been following it from the day it opened. “I was fascinated by the first photograph I saw,” Jeremiah recalls. “A large barn that was completely empty – except for this very shiny still. We never dreamed it would someday be ours!”
“We were following the craft distillery industry closely; we have a friend who has been a part of Beau’s from the very beginning. We saw exciting opportunities emerging in spirits, following on the heels of craft beer. A lot of things came together,” he says. “We were working to build a distillery from scratch and we were looking at purchasing a property in The County together, our two families. We wanted our families to experience life in the country, to be in a place where our kids could run around the way we did growing up. This allowed us to have a place together in the County, with a distillery and a business to grow together. We all felt – if not now, when? ”
Maria’s passion for distilling comes from further back. Maria is from Bulgaria, where she grew up before moving to North America for university and then staying for work and love. Maria’s family has a tradition of distilling to make apricot rakia (similar to brandy). She grew up in Bulgaria picking the apricots and watching the spirits being made. “I grew up picking apricots and my whole family being involved in distilling one way or another. When I walk into the distillery now it takes me right back to my childhood in Bulgaria.”
PASSING THE TORCH
The distillery was founded six years ago by Sophia Pantazi and Peter Stroz. The new team is very mindful of all that Sophia and Peter did to build the distillery and all of the regulations that they had to work through. “Did you know 66 Gilead was only the second craft distillery to open in Ontario – and the first with a retail store?” Jeremiah asks. It is now the first craft distillery in Ontario to change hands.
The two couples are working to build on the work of Sophia and Peter and to continue their traditions. They will be renaming the distillery Kindred, House of Fine Spirits paying tribute to the property and its heritage home. The new name, Kindred for short, also evokes the support of family of friends and the goal of creating fine spirits to be shared with family and friends, to add to the celebration of life’s moments small and grand.
The distillery had been producing gin, a couple of vodkas and several aged spirits including rum, brandy and three different whiskies. The new team has plans to continue with the known and loved spirits, while crafting new creations. “We have been working on a new line of bitters and experimenting with a maple syrup based liqueur. We are really excited about all of the possibilities. Being here in the County, we can make use of the fantastic local produce to make some very special spirits,” Jeremiah says. “For example we can make an exclusive, small batch of fruit brandy and have it available in our store at the farm. When it’s gone it’s gone. Then we will do it again next year when the fruit is ready. The possibilities are endless.”
Jeremiah looks at sample grains for his new line of bitters.
BEYOND THE COUNTY
They know how fortunate they are to be taking over an established business. “It takes a huge amount of work to start a distillery. We are so thankful for all that Sophia and Peter built. With all of the site plan approvals and building approvals done, we can focus on production and building the business,” Jeremiah says.
The distillery’s spirits are available at their store at the distillery, and the gin and a few other products have been available at a dozen of LCBOs. The two couples are looking forward to continuing to welcome people to the farm-based distillery but to also bringing the spirits to the rest of Ontario through increasing the listings in LCBOs. “Having our products on the shelves in the LCBOs across the province is a great way for people to find out about us and pique their interest in coming to visit the farm,” says Michael, who is taking the lead on sales.
Spirits are treated very differently to beer and wine federally and provincially, and LCBO regulations have huge impact on craft distilleries. The team at Kindred hopes some of the encouraging regulation changes in craft wine and beer will happen in their industry. Jeremiah points out that craft beer sales have soared from 1% to 10% in the LCBO in the past ten years with supportive regulations and taxation. “Craft spirits are less than 1% of LCBO’s spirit sales,” he says. “But there was a 64% increase in craft spirit sales last year. Of the 1,300 craft distilleries in the U.S. half of them are clustered in just 10 states and where they get supportive treatment their sales are greater than 10%.” Ontario has about 18 craft distilleries, and another dozen coming soon. Portland, Oregon has that many in a city of less than a million people, and about 30 craft breweries, too. “There is enormous opportunity for growth.”
They have kept an eye on other provinces and jurisdictions, watching how the craft distillery industry has grown and what regulations and taxation are in place. “There is not a defined category for craft spirits in Ontario,” Jeremiah says. “There is no specific assistance or benefits or exemptions in place.” BC has a defined craft distillery category and there is a relatively low tax rate for production up to a certain number of litres. If production exceeds that limit the tax rate jumps. Jeremiah says, “The threshold is high enough to allow a small craft distillery to flourish and grow.”
The team at Kindred is hopeful about changes provincially while not counting on them. They are hopeful that craft distilleries will soon be able to sell directly to restaurants and bars. Recent changes with Bill 70 allowed for slightly more revenue from each bottle sold at the distillery store to stay at the distillery. “We have been told by the government that rebates that will help support the growth of craft distilleries in Ontario are coming. We hope to grow the production, increase employment opportunities and really bring the bounty of the County to the rest of the province. Supportive rebates and regulations would really help to make sure that that can happen,” Sarah says.
THE DISTILLERY AND THE PROPERTY
The distillery was founded on the land of the Cooper-Norton House and farm, on short Gilead Road. The house was built in 1874, in the Second-Empire style, during the booming Barley Days of The County. It is beautiful and historic.
Maria and Michael have two young children, similarly aged to Jeremiah and Sarah. While in the County the families stay at the Cooper-Norton House. “Sophia and Peter lovingly and meticulously restored the house; we feel so fortunate. It is really feels like home,” Sarah says. The two 2 year olds and two 6 year olds can be found playing with the chickens, walking in the fields and hiding in the barns. “They love it here,” Sarah says.
The farm was originally a hops farm. “The barn is an Oast House which is a type of barn that was used for drying hops and has the original slatted drying floors on the second floor,” says Jeremiah. “Below there were big stone fireplaces that were lit to dry the hops. It is so nice to come full circle and have the farm back in the business of providing alcohol to the County and beyond. We are one of only a few farm-based distilleries in Ontario. We are going to grow hops on the land again, which will be used in our gin, as well as grow grain for our spirits on our 75 acres. We plan to grow wheat and rye and perhaps some barley.”
The distillery building was purpose built in 2010. The still is a custom copper still that is a hybrid, combining both a pot and column still. Kindred will have copper on its labels, and showcased in the farm store, as a tribute to the still.
Maria is head of retail and has been working to renovate the distillery store. They are planning to have regular distillery tours and tastings on-site and eventually offer workshops on distilling and mixology. There is a Kindred Spirits Club that they have created. “The club is really about building a community of people who are interested in supporting the quality spirits that we create here,” Maria says. “Members will receive a special pin that will give them access to free tastings and will receive invites to spring and fall “pick (me) up” parties where they can retrieve their subscription offerings, meet the distiller and spend time with like minded spirits. We will also offer club members first dibs on limited-edition spirits and seasonal offerings.” They have also thought about offering a sort of futures program where a person, or a group of people, could buy a 10 litre barrel or whisky. “They could sample it, test it, taste it over time and decide themselves when to bottle it. I see it as an investment and think it will be of great interest to whisky lovers,” Jeremiah says.
Sneak peek at the new Kindred brand.
Jeremiah’s passion for making spirits and The County are evident as he speaks. “We want our spirits to have County terroir.” Beyond grains they hope to use as many botanicals grown in The County as possible. They have harvested local juniper berries for their gin and are looking to use lavender from the Lavender Farm.
“We feel so fortunate to be in The County. Everyone has been so welcoming and helpful.” Jeremiah says that they are continuing to be introduced to people in The County, making connections and plans for collaborations. Local producers have already used the distillery’s spirits in multiple products including jams, cheeses and hot sauces. Their barrels have been used for aging stout. Their spent grains are used to feed cattle and pigs.
Sarah is heading up community involvement in The County and public relations. Soon after receiving the keys to the distillery, the two families were in the Pumpkinfest Parade. They had an open house in November that raised funds for Adopt-A-Child/Keep Kids Warm. They are already looking towards activities for Maple in the County and beyond. “We are so glad to be here. We have met so many supportive and welcoming people already and are really looking forward to continue to get to know people over the months and years to come,” Sarah says.
They are hoping that the connections and collaborations will also help more people know about the distillery. “Visitors ask for recommendations and local businesses can promote each other. We’ll be inviting people from businesses in The County to visit us and get to know the distillery, the farm and our products better,” Jeremiah say.
They will have time to find their place in The County and to continue to make their connections. “I am here full-time right now,” says Jeremiah. Sarah, Michael and Maria have day jobs in the cities, for now. “Each week it gets harder to make the drive back into the city,” says Michael. “The County has been so welcoming.”
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