Around the same time in the 1830s that part of the Allan’s Mill building in Guelph was being used as a distillery, John H. Sleeman was operating a brewery and a distillery near St. Catharines, Ont.
After an extensive renovation of Allen’s Mill, the current-day John Sleeman is opening the Spring Mill Distillery in the historic building, which will eventually offer whisky but for now is selling vodka and gin.
The stills were activated in February, said Cooper Sleeman, John’s son and manager of sales and marketing for Spring Mill.
“We fully intend on being a whisky distillery, that is what the stills we brought it are for,” said Cooper. “We won’t be buying any bulk whisky from anywhere, everything that will go through this facility will be grain to barrel all from scratch.”
The challenge is turnaround time. Vodka and gin can be distilled and bottled in a process that takes a few days, whereas whisky can take much longer, depending on how long you age it.
The vodka and gin currently being produced by the distillery is available for sale at 25 LCBO locations, as part of a craft distillers program and will soon be shipping to Quebec, New Brunswick and Alberta.
Currently, all of the bottling is done by hand.
“It takes four guys to get everything done, a little slower than at the brewery, that’s for sure,” said Cooper.
The distillery has a bar, which will be open daily and offer the company’s gin and vodka. Until its own whisky is ready, a selection of other whiskeys will be served, as well as wine.
“We have named it the Ward Bar after the neighbourhood,” said Cooper.
The bar also serves as the main entrance to the building, where most of the public interaction will be — from selling of spirits to selling Spring Mill Distillery merchandise and offering tours of the facility.
Cooper said there is a lot of potential for tourism, from people seeking to tour the distillery to being interested in the restoration of the building.
“We have restored it to its original look and we have done very little in term of additions to the building, both by design and as requested by the Historical Society. We like the way it has turned out,” said Cooper.
In the lobby is a restored 1923 Ford Model T truck painted with the distillery’s branding.
“It runs,” said Cooper. “We will be using it during special occasions.”
Another point of interest will be the coopering facility, where the wooden barrels used in whisky making will be maintained. Cooper said the company employs the only master cooper in Canada.
Cooper said the distillery is the result of nine years of planning between his father John and former Sleeman Breweries master brewer Doan Bellman. He said the pair received the blessing of the brewery’s current owners, Sapporo Brewery of Japan.
The 45-foot-tall copper columns that are viewable through windows in the bar were hand-made in Scotland by Forsyths.
“It took them a month and a half to make them, all by hand, and shipped over by boat. It took nine days to cross the ocean from Liverpool to Montreal,” said Cooper.
Because they didn’t want to tear down any walls, the 45-foot copper stills and 14-foot-tall wooden washback barrels had to enter the historic building through a single 11-foot-by-seven-foot entrance.
The Spring Mill Distillery is one of a number of local buildings that can be toured on Saturday, April 27 as part of Doors Open Guelph.