Halifax has become a hotbed for breweries, and now also has two distilleries operating in the city. We had a chance to visit both of them, and the write-up of the brand new Compass Distillers was previously posted here. The Halifax Distilling Company is the other and actually finds its roots on Prince Edward Island as the Prince Edward Distillery started by Julie Shore, a dental hygienist and Arla Johnson, a psychologist. They opened the PE distillery in the early 2000s and began making Prince Edward Potato Vodka from local ingredients, most prominently, PEI potatoes. The Reserve line of Whiskies were branded I.C. Shore after Julie’s great-great-great-grandfather, who was a bourbon distiller from North Carolina in the early 1900s until prohibition (and even before that, back in Switzerland!). After years of distilling on the island, Julie and Arla decided to open a second distillery on the Halifax waterfront in 2016.
We had a chance to take a tour of the building, get some pictures and try a few of their spirits. Taking a look at their equipment, the set-up is pretty typical of what you see at smaller distilleries. They use a German Hybrid still with two columns and large stainless steel fermenters. This is the still they had been using on PEI for over a decade before moving it to Halifax, and replacing it with a Polish still that is specially designed for vodka and more suitable for the market size.
The Halifax Distillery uses a variety of barrels. They use ex-bourbon (we saw a lot of Buffalo Trace barrels on site) to age the rum line-up, and virgin oak for the reserve line of whiskies, which include 7-15 gallon virgin oak barrels made by Black Swan Cooperage with a #3 char and 50 gallon virgin oak barrels from Kelvin Cooperage.
The distillery produces all varieties of rums, including a very popular rum cream. They had made a few barrels of whisky on PEI and this has continued, but as the site is only a year old, it will be a while before and Halifax-made whisky is ready. For products produced at the Halifax location, they’ve branded them J.D. Shore, named after the 4th generation master distiller and founder, Julie Shore. Julie is passionate about her craft – after travelling the world to learn best practices, and studying distilling at Cornell – she does the entire process herself from grain to glass.
The most impressive part of the facility is the restaurant and tasting room. It features an antique bar imported from London, beautiful views of the waterfront and live local musicians nearly every day. They also display barrels throughout the restaurant and include an area with plaques telling the history of the area and the company.
After the tour, we had the Reserve tasting, which includes their single barrel Rye, Bourbon-style Whiskey, Rum and Rum Cream. The Rum is blended from barrels 5-6 years old and used highly refined molasses, bottled at 40%. The Rum Cream combines their gold rum with homogenized cream and oak-aged vanilla for a deliciously robust and vanilla forward cream that is somewhat different from the typical whiskey-based cream liqueur – we could see why it’s one of their most popular products. The two whiskies are reviewed below:
I.C. Shore Single Barrel Canadian Rye – 41% ABV
This rye is one of their Reserve single barrels, distilled and aged on PEI until being moved to Halifax in 2016, and made from 100% PEI rye. Cask #7 is a 50 gallon barrel from Kelvin Cooperage and has held rye for about 8 years now. The choice of ABV was chosen somewhat randomly, just to be somewhat different from the standard 40%.
- Nose: Earthy nose, banana, freshly cut grass, nutty, sawdust
- Palate: Small barrel green wood, sawdust, rye spice, nutmeg, cinnamon. Wood stain.
- Finish: Short , green wood, stain
I originally thought this must have been aged in a small barrel as I noted some green wood and stain-like flavours that I’ve found from many small distilleries using small wood. So while I’m not sure where that note came from in this case, there’s plenty of potential here, and I look forward to trying what comes off their still in Halifax after it has aged fully on the waterfront!
I.C. Shore Single Barrel Whiskey – 41% ABV
Their whiskey is made bourbon-style, with all grains mashed, fermented, distilled and aged together. The mashbill I was given is about 75% corn, with the balance being approximately equal proportions of malted barley and rye. The whiskey was aged 5 years in Cask #92, a 7 gallon barrel from Black Swan Cooperage.
- Nose: Vanilla, oak, caramel, corn, malty, vegetal
- Palate: Spice, caramel, banana cream, walnut, banana bread, quite sweet, woody.
- Finish: Slightly bitter wood, caramel, sweet.
This was a lot cleaner than the rye, and had a bit more depth. The walnut-like bitterness was quite nice. I was surprised at the lack of small-barrel notes, and this held up well with some very nice bourbon-like flavour notes. Interestingly, they hand bottle small batches at a time, with the rest of the spirit staying in the barrel to age further, which would enable true whisky geeks to do a single barrel whisky vertical, with differently aged whiskies from the same barrel over time!
Big thanks to Julie Shore and the staff at Halifax Distilling Company for showing us around and telling us about the distillery, its history and its future!