Sunshine in a Bottle
The story of the beginning of Empire Cider sounds a bit like a dreamy novel — a sweet summer read, where everything falls perfectly into place for the heroine.
In this case, the heroine is Jennifer Jarrell McRae, who grew up running barefoot through her friend’s sun-kissed apple orchard in the quaint, little town of Codrington, Ont.
Today, Jarrell McRae is bottling up that magical sunshine-and apple combination in her own backyard. Using apples from that very same orchard, Jarrell McRae and her husband, Chris McRae, are making their own brand of hard cider — along with business partners Laura and Felix Wittholz.
The start of the whole venture seems quite serendipitous — a bit like having a shiny, red apple fall out of the tree and right into your lap.
“Chris had been making cider for about four years,” recalls Jarrell McRae, who quickly gives her spouse full credit as the brewmaster for their operation. She adds that serving up their unique blend to family and friends had started to become somewhat onerous.
“It was getting a little bit expensive — we were basically supplying everyone with free booze,” she says.
Then one fateful long weekend, while celebrating Thanksgiving at their cottage in Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Chris’s cousin, Laura Wittholz and her husband, Felix, tasted the cider. “They asked us, ‘Why don’t you sell this?’” says Jarrell McRae of what would become Empire Cider. “That’s where the business plan got started.” She notes that the Wittholzes are “wonderful entrepreneurs” who both have experience owning their own companies.
The apple had fallen and, from that point on, it was on a roll.
Praised by his co-founders as a graphic designer extraordinaire, Felix Wittholz brought the name to life with an edgy label design featuring a crowned crow — a bird that is constantly seen on the property.
Empire Cider’s latest growth comes in the form of its own orchard, planted last May. Jarrell McRae explains that they were required to have at least five acres of planted trees in order to run a commercial cidery operation on the property. After the trees were delivered, the holes were dug and the trees were planted – all by hand.
“I’m a farmer at heart — I swear I should have been born on a farm,” enthuses Jarrell McRae. “We planted those trees with a lot of love; our kids love watering them.”
Once again, the support of the community was vital to their progress. “Definitely the community helped out with that one — it was a lot of trees to plant, but it was a lot more fun.”
While the trees will never provide enough apples to sustain the cidery, Jarrell McRae says that is more than OK.
“We don’t want to be completely self-sufficient,” she explains. “Definitely a big part of why we’re doing this is for the love of our community.
“It makes me so happy to think our company is putting a smile on my local farmer’s face.”
Consumers, too, are smiling after trying out Empire Cider. To date, the cider is distributed in Trenton, Bloomfield, Picton, Brighton, Gores Landing, Kingston and Toronto. Twenty-one bars between Toronto and Kingston are serving it, Jarrell McRae says.
The production facility also added a space for tastings — and a location to sell to the general public — last spring. An informal opening on Canada Day received “a phenomenal response.”
“I had a man come in the other day — he drove an hour and a half just to try it,” says Jarrell McRae. “It’s such a cool feeling.
“I’m so proud of our little town for growing these apples.”