Top Shelf Photo credit: Nick Lafontaine

Top Shelf. Photo credit: Nick Lafontaine

Some real estate agents swear by the smell of baking bread as a way of enhancing the prospects of a house on the market. The yeasty aroma apparently heads straight to our brain to conjure up expectations that something chemically complex and potentially very tasty is happening, thus making the property all the more appealing to a prospective buyer. If so, then the confines of a modest business park warehouse in the small eastern Ontario town of Perth should be very appealing indeed. However, instead of the aroma of warm bread, Perth is suffused with the equally heady scent of sour mash runs that are being prepared for distillation, the first step in making refined products such as vodka, whiskey and gin. 

Hanna Murphy, Top Shelf’s CEO and co-founder, continues to enjoy the challenges and rewards of an enterprise based on distilling. Photo credit: Nick Lafontaine

Hanna Murphy, Top Shelf’s CEO and co-founder, continues to enjoy the challenges and rewards of an enterprise based on distilling. Photo credit: Nick Lafontaine 

At the centre of this activity is a state-of-the-art German-made still, a copper-clad behemoth with towers rising several metres from the shop floor with the majesty of a cathedral organ. Large enough to be impressive, the facility nevertheless avoids the daunting, overwhelming feel of a factory-scale operation. This setting is more approachable and its potent atmosphere is downright inviting. A simple storefront completes the invitation, embellished with shelves full of jugs bearing names such as “Ryes and shine,” “Apple pie,” or simply “Moonshine.”

The centrepiece of Top Shelf Distillers’ activities is a German-made still, which are in such high demand that micro-distillers wait years to acquire one. Photo credit: Nick Lafontaine

The centrepiece of Top Shelf Distillers’ activities is a German-made still, which are in such high demand that micro-distillers wait years to acquire one. Photo credit: Nick Lafontaine

This is the face of micro-distilling, a new niche of enterprises that have been popping up across the country over the past few years as provincial governments begin to relax legal and regulatory strictures whose roots reach back into the early 20th-century heyday of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In contrast to Europe, where many cultures continue to celebrate traditions of distilling alcoholic concoctions in one’s own home, North American authorities have regularly frowned upon and banned such practices. The result has led to polarization of this continent’s own tradition, with a handful of giant industrial distillers at one end and beleaguered backwoods moonshiners at the other. Between them there has been little or nothing — until now. 

Top Shelf distiller Andy Hawkey brings a background in chemistry and an eagerness to explore the potential of spirit-based beverages. Photo Credit: Nick Lafontaine

Top Shelf distiller Andy Hawkey brings a background in chemistry and an eagerness to explore the potential of spirit-based beverages. Photo credit: Nick Lafontaine

Top Shelf Distillers in Perth is among those exploring this new landscape. The firm went into business this year, but the impetus began in 2015 with Ottawa entrepreneur John Criswick, who was seeking the cachet of selling locally produced spirits in his chain of drinking establishments. The firm has been carefully navigating the legal, business and chemical terrain before them. Co-founder and CEO Hanna Murphy, whose previous business experience has included helping to manage an internationally competitive women’s roller derby team, travelled across Canada and the United States to learn the liquor trade from established distilleries, then spent upward of a year acquiring equipment, talent and the appropriate paperwork. “You have to have a manufacturer’s licence with an immaculate business plan going out five years,” she says. “You have to already have your equipment and they want to see your floor plan.”

“They” are the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, whose additional authority over lotteries, casinos and race tracks is another reminder that distilling falls very much into the “vice” category of government oversight. Not so long ago, the output of Top Shelf, currently up to 1,200 litres in a batch, would have been too small to be allowed as an independent retailer. Nor does the existing excise tax regime encourage an investment on the order of $300,000 just for the basic equipment. Murphy notes that this tax on their product works out to about $11 per litre of absolute alcohol, while for beer makers it is just $2 and for wineries using Canadian grapes it is zero. She adds that although the grain going into Top Shelf comes from nearby farmer’s fields, unlike wineries their locavore status yields them no advantage in the government’s eyes. 

There are champions lobbying to eliminate such fundamental disparities, including former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, whose own riding sits in the Niagara wine region that has thrived from similar legislative innovation a generation ago. Individuals like Criswick and Murphy want to be up and running when that happens; even now they are working hard to keep up with the rapidly growing demand for their products, which can be found in no fewer than 25 liquor stores around the region. 

At the same time, distiller Andy Hawkey has been honing his chemical chops to make those products interesting and original. The New Zealand native has a chemistry degree but acknowledges that he would never have foreseen himself devoting that education toward this kind of career. Nor did he have any direct experience with distilling beyond the confines of a laboratory bench before joining Top Shelf. After taking advantage of some established recipes tailored for micro-distilling, he has branched out from a standard repertoire of best-selling items to more experimental fare. “I’m developing a relationship with the still,” Hawkey says, referring specifically to the highly manual nature of the various procedures that are necessary to run equipment on this comparatively modest scale. “I’m learning the intricacies of it and I don’t think you would so much if it were all fully automated.”

Among the key steps are “cuts,” the point at which distillate changes in character. The initial output, known as Foreshots, includes the most volatile alcohols, some of which, like methanol, are hazardous to drink. Next comes the Heads, made up of compounds like acetone and acetaldehyde; these might technically be potable (as many a hung-over moonshiner could testify) but they are better saved as starter for later distillation. More appealing is the smoother blend of ethanol and various side products that follows, which goes by the appropriate name of Hearts and serves as the basis for commercial beverages. This stage gives way to a final offering called Tails, which is generally more bitter and, like Heads, best set aside for future use. “There’s a lot of chemistry and I would have struggled without that background,” says Hawkey. “There’s a lot of calculations, working with densities and volumes and that sort of thing. There’s also been a lot of working with tradespeople and learning some plumbing and fitting.” And, he emphasizes, there is tasting. “Ultimately it comes down to taste,” he says. You can’t put science to that; you can’t put numbers to that. You just learn when the cut needs to be made.”

There are also accidents, some happy and others less so. Humanity’s first encounters with alcohol, lost in the mists of prehistory, were undoubtedly the result of happenstance, some of which gained drama as the processes became more sophisticated. For example, when the venerable Irish brewer Guinness decided to recycle a batch of soured stout rather than tossing it out, the result was legendary.  

For Hawkey, so far he has had to deal with a motley collection of problems such as sloshing spills or barrels burst by temperature swings in the warehouse. He has also coped with the vagaries of the still itself, where variations in pressure can create an  entirely different quality and quantity of alcohol. More pleasant has been the ability to experiment with recipes for gin, which takes on distinct flavours from juniper berries and other botanicals that are introduced as essential oils during steam distillation. After a dozen different tries with citrus concoctions, Top Shelf employees gave the thumbs-up to one with grapefruit, which is now the company’s flagship offering.

Employees are not the only ones providing such feedback. Murphy points to the batch numbers provided on each bottle sold, so that customers can report back in a way that links back to each particular run in the still. In this way micro-distillers reveal how far removed they are from the assembly-line chemical consistency of major international distillers. She regards this subjective character of different batches as a definitive draw for their clientele.  

As for the extent of the market represented by this clientele, it is too early to predict. But Top Shelf is one of more than a dozen micro-distilleries in Ontario, which are located everywhere from mid-town Toronto to the southernmost reaches of the province on the Detroit River and the northernmost extension of the Trans-Canada Highway. Other parts of the country are likewise welcoming these fledgling enterprises, from the West Coast to the Maritimes and even Dawson City, Yukon. 

Longtime beverage alcohol observers Peter Mahaffy and Dietmar Kennepohl have been fascinated by these developments, which are bringing some scientific methodology into one of civilization’s longest standing artisanal pursuits. “The knowledge that’s handed on from generation to generation in these ancient breweries and distilleries has a lot of chemistry at its heart,” says Mahaffy, a chemistry professor at The King’s University in Edmonton. “Modern analytical chemistry has played a really important role in perfecting products but also in doing quality assurance of products.”

Kennepohl, a chemistry professor at Alberta’s Athabasca University, is especially pleased to witness the dawning of a craft culture that has animated European culture for centuries. “My own grandfather ran a Schnapsfabrik in Germany and every town had their own beers and distilleries,” he says.

Until recently these institutions were maintained by expertise learned on the job, such as maltsters who spent a lifetime learning the intricacies of the different grains that serve as the building blocks of beers and whiskeys. Kennepohl adds that as laboratory tools have become more powerful and user friendly, what distillers had formerly learned by trial and error can now be accomplished more efficiently with relatively simple analysis. “Now you can jump into it and actually see what the differences are,” he says. “As a chemist that’s what I find really interesting.”

The most dedicated participants can take advantage of analytical techniques like gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to assess inputs such as the botanical component of gin. “The gin story is a very interesting one, with some similarities to the differences in complexity that you have with some of the single malts,” says Mahaffy.    

For the existing cadre of major distillers around the world, these new players promise to shake up a business model that has become a bit too staid for many drinkers. Malt whiskeys emerging from unlikely upstarts in India have been holding their own in Scotch tasting events, which brings back memories of how similar upstarts in California and Australia previously overcame the European stranglehold on fine wines.  

Even loftier goals are being set by some of the most scientifically ambitious entrepreneurs, who would like to meld the classical world of distillation with the cutting edge of molecular gastronomy. Two of these undertakings: Lost Spirits Distillery in Monterrey, Calif. and Rational Spirits Distillery in Charleston, SC, have taken on the status of a culinary cult, which one day could see the equivalent of a decades-old rum or whiskey turned out by technology in a matter of days.

Back in Perth, Andy Hawkey has no immediate need to dabble in these high-tech spirits, at least not yet. He and his colleagues have their hands full as they compose a new chapter in our country’s sometimes-difficult relationship with alcohol, which represents more than enough of a challenge. “This is not like working in a laboratory because there’s so many diverse challenges,” he concludes. “I’ve had lots to learn and we all are just learning as we go.” 

Documenting distillation­

Even the most knowledgeable chemist may know little of the practical realities of distilling alcohol, simply because the practice is legally denied to all but a licensed few. That puts an international organization like The Amphora Society in an intriguing position, since its website clearly markets distilling equipment and books containing all the technical instructions for using that equipment to make whiskey and other libations. One of the most prominent members of this society in Canada is Ian Smiley, who maintains his own website packed with similar information.

Smiley served as a key consultant to Top Shelf Distillers as they were setting up shop and he has done the same for similar micro-distilleries across the country. For entrepreneurs like Hanna Murphy, his book, Making Pure Corn Whiskey, is the jumping-off point for methods and recipes that are indispensable to the success of a distilling enterprise. At the same time, his publication provides the complete wherewithal for anyone to try this at home — even though that would be illegal. 

By way of forestalling conflicts, Smiley has sent copies to the appropriate government departments in Canada and the United States, who have assured him that publishing the book does not qualify as a crime. And his website hints that the slow and steady spread of this knowledge may ultimately overcome the bureaucratic fears of home distilling, as happened when the practice was finally permitted in New Zealand some 20 years ago. There, he says, “it has not led to widespread unemployment, people are not going blind and there has been no attempt to sell home-made spirits without a license.”