So it’s quarter to 9 in the morning on a chilly Thursday in the middle of December. This week has been as bitter-cold as Southern Ontario gets and yet here I am taking a GO Bus to Guelph. Why? Well that’s because I went to explore one of the most interesting new distilleries in Ontario: The Spring Mill Distillery!
Not many whisky fans in Ontario have heard of this distillery yet and its surprising to see because this distillery has deep roots in Ontario history given that one of Guelph’s most famous residents in John Sleeman, the founder of the Sleeman Brewing Company, is the owner and founder of Spring Mill. Since the distillery was announced to open for early 2019 after almost two years of construction, I hadn’t heard too much about the project until I was given the amazing opportunity to go on a private tour of the distillery! I’m very excited to see how progress has been going since first spirit runs began in April 2019, especially with their aging “soon-to-be whisky” spirits!
The distillery itself is very much a mix of old and new. It reminds me a lot of the Holyrood and Ardnahoe distilleries in Scotland given how modern the facilities look, to where the halls to each section feel more like a public hall then a distillery, but the different section rooms themselves give a bit of a Victorian feel that take me back to my experiences at Glengyle and Glen Scotia in Campbeltown. I’m taken around the distillery by Darryl, a rep from Sleeman, and Cooper, the sales and marketing manager for Spring Mill as well as John Sleeman’s son!
We start in the fermentation room where you can first see the two ground grain bins at use in Spring Mill’s operations.
We also see the distillery’s two wooden washbacks, made entirely of Canadian Douglas fir by Scottish firm Joseph Brown Vatts, along with some stainless steel fermenters that are used for all of the distillery’s spirits aside from the single malt spirit. Spring Mill ferments all of their spirits on site with the process lasting between 3-4 days and using a variety of yeast strains for each different spirit style.
There are also bags of malted barley on the floor, which usually come in as bulk but they recently came as bags due to a mix-up with their U.K. barley provider, which is usually sent to a maltster in Ontario before reaching the distillery.
Next we move to check out the reverse osmosis system and tank and the bottom end of the wooden washbacks. The reverse osmosis is used for dilution after distilling.
We also get a peak at the distillery lauter tun, with the mash cooker just to the left outside of the photo.
Next we move to one of the unique parts of the distillery, the still room! Here we’re met by John, one of Spring Mill’s distillers, who shows us a few things about the stills themselves. They are commissioned by Forsythes in Rothes, Scotland making Spring Mill one of the few distilleries in Canada using Scottish-made pot stills. They also run a column still to make their neutral grain spirits for gin and vodka as well as their corn and rye spirits which runs 12 months a year compared to the pot stills which currently run from March to May and then again from August to November.
You can also see a spirit safe in the still room, also made by Forsyths!
Next we head upstairs to the milling room where the grains are all milled for fermentation. The mill is made by MacDonald Steel Limited of Cambridge, Ontario. There are also some bins at the back of the room containing the botanicals used in the gin as well as grain samples they show during tours. All of Spring Mill’s grains, minus the barley, are sourced from across Canada where they have rye, corn and wheat grain stores on site!
Speaking of grain stores, we now head to a door leading to the roof where the distillery’s grain silos lay! All grains used for distillation at Spring Mill are stored here which is a benefit for how much storage space exists at such a small site as well as a detriment given that the harsh colds Ontario can get could freeze the grain inside! So the distillery staff have to be very cautious when it comes to managing their grain inventory, which they seem to do a good job with!
Next we move to the cooperage!
Yes you read that right, Spring Mill Distillery have an on-site cooperage! Given his name, however, Cooper does not do the coopering duties here at Spring Mill. That’s actually the role of his brother who is currently an apprenticing cooper training in Scotland! He is in charge of inspections and repairs for all of the barrels arriving in the distillery. As he’s working on getting his accreditation, Spring Mill also source their barrels from Canadian cooper Pete Bradshaw, the only certified master cooper in Canada, and from the Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky.
Lastly we head to the most enjoyable part (for a whisky guy like myself!) of Spring Mill, and the place containing the stuff I’m the most excited about, the rackhouse!
Currently the rackhouse at Spring Mill is located on the top floor and can house up to 250 or so casks before they’ll have to look around a new warehousing location for any future casks, which they hope will be in the Wellington County area. There’s an array of virgin American oak, ex-bourbon and ex-Canadian whisky casks around all housing the distillery’s various spirit types, all of which enter the barrel at 62.5% ABV, which include:
A 100% malted barley spirit,
A minimum 51% corn blended mash spirit distilled in their column still,
A malted barley-forward blended mash spirit double distilled in their pot stills,
And a 100% (or close to 100%) rye whisky!
I had a very opportune chance to get a quick nose from the different styles of spirits being matured so far, none older then 6 months in barrel, and so far I’ve been very impressed with the aromatics that I’ve been getting from each one. The aromas from the single malt and copper pot distilled mash spirits are very floral and soft with not a whole lot of youth or alcohol showing. The 100% rye is delicate and herbal with some interesting oak smells from early maturation in a Canadian oak barrel. And the column still mash blend spirit, with just 6 months of ageing in virgin oak, smelled spectacularly good with rich oily and buttery smells that make me very excited to see how it’ll taste when it’s ready for bottling, which will hopefully sometime soon but Cooper exists that it’ll be bottled “only when we’re happy with it!”
Speaking of bottling here’s a quick glance at the Spring Mill bottling line! Every bottle is done in house in this tiny set-up which I think will grow quite a bit in the years to come!
And that’s the end of the distillery tour! We finished off at the distillery bar, called The Ward Bar, where I tried their vodka, gin and small batch spiced liqueur. All of their spirits are non-chill filtered which makes the white spirits have a lot better texture then most Ontario-made white spirits at 40% ABV. The vodka, made from red winter wheat spirit, is clean but has a nice touch of honey and the gin, made from the same grain, is very palatable and light but has a great aromatic profile that will make this a solid sipping gin for those who don’t want too much alcohol presence in their gins. The small batch spiced liqueur (the first edition of many more to come which will be distillery-exclusive) is sweet and has great honey and spice notes that make it a great dessert liqueur for the holiday season. Plus there’s no artificial flavouring to boot! I made sure to grab a bottle of this one to bring home for family!
Overall, the distillery experience at Spring Mill was wonderful with very solid white spirits, some very high quality liqueurs and even better maturing spirits that show fantastic promise for an Ontario distillery. If you’re in Guelph or visiting the city soon definitely give Spring Mill a look because if the spirits taste as good as they smell then this will be the distillery to be watching in anticipation because their first whiskies, when they release, are going to be something very special!
(Note: The picture of the still room used in this post comes from Spring Mill Distillery’s website (http://www.springmilldistillery.com/), which was used for this write-up with the distillery’s permission.)