From Grain to Glass at 66 Gilead Distillery
While the decision to enter the business of producing craft spirits poses stark challenges, this is a story of passion and determination. In a market where multinational companies create “Canadian whisky”, the Canadian craft producer is a small dot on the map, an afterthought in the distribution chain. The destination on this map took us to Prince Edward County.
With its wine, food, art, and sandy beaches, it’s no wonder the County, as it is colloquially known, is stealing the attention of Ontarians (and Americans for that matter) as a favoured destination. The area boasts a rich heritage base that draws from rustic, rural roots. With a land mass that cuts deep into Lake Ontario and scattered islands that carry stories of rum runners from the prohibition era, it makes sense that the county would produce 66 Gilead, a craft distillery and one with a strong focus on whisky – a frontier spirit.
66 Gilead is set on a 140 year old farm scattered with frolicking chickens, a refinished original homestead and an oast house with ancient initials and counts etched into the walls. It is here that Peter Stroz and Sophia Pantazi are relying on the County and its community to make their mark. The physician couple have adopted their surroundings aiming, as they say, to “breathe life back into the land and our Canadian history.” And while they cannot yet quit their day jobs, they craft for the “passion - not just of the spirits but for the land and the community.” A family affair, they’ve also enlisted their two children, Jacqueline and Michael, the latter of whom, in particular, has taken to the time-honoured art of distilling over the past few years.
It was Michael who shared the story of Gilead’s birth and the moment his mother approached him, the sound of determination ringing in her voice, “Michael, we’re starting a distillery. Here’s a book.” He spoke of subsequent readings and attending a few courses here and there, but the family soon discovered that the only way to craft, was to try. Every still has its own unique flavour to it and gaining an understanding of their own equipment, combined with a thorough knowledge of chemistry is what has helped them to produce quality spirits. It was and still is a learning through process.
At 66 Gilead, this process begins with a base of Ontario grains. In a signature move of craft distillers, 66 Gilead is relying on a hybrid pot-column still that allows the small producer to make a variety of spirits for a range of customers. Their end result is a selection that includes vodka, shochu, gin, rum, two whiskys (and more). As their distiller likes to point out, everything is 100% grain to glass. Unlike the vast majority of mass-produced Canadian whiskys striving for uniformity, nothing is added nor taken away - no flavours, no colouring, and no filtering applied, because as Michael exclaims, “why would we want to hide what we are proud of?” When it comes to determining whether the whisky from the still (known as white dog) is fit for barrelling, their approach is straightforward. “We know by taste. If it’s good, we put it in a barrel.”
In a further connection to the land, and not to mention rather conveniently, their neighbour is their barrel maker, and the last professional cooper in Canada. Having made a special appearance on site for the launch of their latest product, Crimson Rye, he demonstrated the art of charring the barrels to caramelize and release flavour from the wood. When it comes to whisky, 66 Gilead’s passion, white oak barrels are charred, filled, and left to age on site. Their new Crimson Rye received its name from reddish hues it gathered while being stored in red wine barrels.
Craft distilleries are exploding in the United States, which abhors red tape and anything that impedes free enterprise. At the same time, the small distiller in Canada is caught in a web of rules that limit who, what, and when alcohol can be distributed. Over the past twenty years, we have watched the wine and subsequently craft beer industries expand. When one walks into 66 Gilead's 19th century tasting room and sips their spirits, one can only hope that the path that past beverage industries have tread will open doors for the likes of the Stroz family and the many who might follow them.
66 Gilead Distillery
66 Gilead Road, Bloomfield, Ontario