Spring Mill Distillery
The Spring Mill Distillery is located in historical Allan’s Mill building right on the edge of the Speed River in the downtown area. It’s known for its high-quality spirits that are distilled and using traditional methods to ensure that authentic quality. It’s also home of the Ward Bar where you can sample some of their spirits and some really cool cocktails.
Q1: I’m inside Spring Mill with John Sleeman, the owner. John, could you tell me a bit about the history of this building and why you chose to open up a distillery here.
[John] Sure, I’d love to Brad. I was looking at building a distillery in kind of the Guelph, Kitchener or Cambridge area. And in fact we had a location picked out on the 401 in Cambridge and it came to my attention that this building might be available. We did a little bit of research and we discovered that back in 1835 or 1836, the first thing on this site was a distillery.
[Brad] No kidding, yeah.
[John] So it going to make sense that we should come back–
[Brad] Yeah, it’s kind of poetic, bringing it back, absolutely. John, you’ve obviously, the Sleeman family is very well known for Sleeman breweries–
[John] And beer, yes.
Q2: Yeah all your work in the beer industry. What made you decide to go into the distillery business?
[John] I often ask myself that question. I’ve always appreciated various alcoholic beverages, whether it’s wine, spirits or beer. I’ve certainly enjoyed my time in the beer industry. But I noticed that the way the marketplace is right now, there is an increasing amount of interest from the consumers for new and unique spirits.
[Brad] Yeah absolutely.
[John] Just like it was in the beer business when I started the brewery in 1980s. People then wanted to experiment outside of the large companies and try little new companies and products. And so it seems that right about now the same thing is happening in spirits. Whether it’s whiskeys, or gins, or vodkas, and so I thought with our name recognition at Sleeman.
[Brad] Definitely, yeah.
[John] And our commitment to quality, that people might be interested in trying some of our products. So I started out thinking about a small distillery and here we are seven or eight years later and quite a bit bigger distillery.
[Brad] Wow that’s quite a mission then.
[John] Yes it has been quite a mission.
Q3: That’s great, and have you had any major challenges or hurdles?
[John] Yes, we’ve had our fair share of major challenges. The first, as I mentioned, the first plan was to have a brand new building which comes with almost no challenges. Going into an historical building that’s already here, created all kinds of challenges because we wanted to respect what you see around us–
[Brad] Absolutely yeah.
[John] This beautiful building. The Historical Society wanted to ensure that we preserved it in as close to original condition as possible. And so what we thought would be a 12 to 15 month construction period probably lasted more than two years.
[Brad] Oh, wow.
[John] And cost a lot of money, but at this point, I should give credit to Fusion Homes because they were the ones who worked with us to restore the building. And they really have done a good job.
Q4: John, why did you guys choose to distill gin and vodka?
[John] Well my original plan was to build a single malt distillery where we made whiskeys.
[Brad] Oh, okay.
[John] And as I was going through the business plan I realized that it takes a minimum of three years to have whiskey because the law says it has to sit in barrels. So you’ve got a three year period, minimum, where we’re making whiskey but you don’t get the pleasure of drinking it. And so, you know, what a lot of distilleries do, is they make other substances that can come to market more quickly. And so we looked at coming out with the gin and vodka and decided that if our name’s going to be associated with any product from here, it really needs to be of the highest quality. We spent a lot of time working with a company in England to help us develop the gin recipe, I mean who knows more about gin than the English?
[Brad] Yeah, that’s for sure.
[John] Gin and tonics. And we spoke to all kinds of consumers about what the would like in vodka. Our history at Sleeman brewery proved to us that packaging is important, so we spent a lot of time coming up with the bottles and the look of the bottles. Because we didn’t just want to have something that would get us through to whiskey. We want to have something that represents to our consumers our attention to detail and quality. So when the whiskey comes available they’ll go, “Well of course, they’ve got great gin and great vodka “why wouldn’t they have great whiskey?”
Q5: Absolutely, that makes a lot of sense. So John, where can you buy your gin and vodka right now?
[John] Well right now you can buy the gin and the vodka in the retail store here at the distillery as you see behind us. We’re available in about 100 LCBOs in Ontario. And sometime in the near future, we hope August or September, we’ll start being available in some other provinces, most notably the province of Quebec and eventually Alberta. And a year from now we hope to have our products right across the country.
Q6: Perfect. You’ve got the Ward Bar here as well at the Spring Mill, what would you say is your most popular, or best selling drink?
[John] Well we’ve got a couple of drinks that are very popular. One is our twist on the traditional English gin and tonic which we call a Spring and Tonic, after Spring Mill.
[John] And the other one is a Dellemere which is a drink that can trace its history back to a bar that was on the site 150 years ago.
[Brad] Oh wow.
[John] And it’s a real pleasure watching the mixologists, bartenders, make these drinks because there’s a real flair to how they do it. So I would encourage people to come down here and enjoy, as much as you enjoy the drink, watch how our bartenders and mixologists churn out some pretty creative products.
[Brad] Yeah, I’ve been here a couple of times and it truly is a show as well.
[John] It is a show.
Q7: It’s very very cool. So with the food and your drinks here, I understand is there is significance to the names of all of them?
[John] You’re right Brad, I mean take the name of the bar for instance, it’s called the Ward Bar because we are situated in the Ward District. And you know there are so many other places you could go that don’t seem to pay attention to what’s local, And we’re in an old historic building, in an important location in the city of Guelph, and so we wanted all of our products, or many of our products, to pay tribute to what’s gone before. So, you know the drinks are named as I mentioned, the Dellemere is named after the bar that was on this site. And our food products are named after the Ward, or Allan which was the name of the original mill, things like that. So our drinks and our food, we try and pay compliments and tribute to stuff that’s local, that will resonate with people who live in this area.
Q8: Perfect, that’s great. And do you guys also offer tours here as well?
[John] Yeah we do. People, when they come through for a tour are really impressed with how beautiful this building is, I mean, only three or four years ago it was derelict. And so everybody’s done a wonderful job of restoring it, and when people get a chance to see it the love it. So the tours are available, all you need to do is let us know in advance when you’d like to be here, how many people are in your group, and for a small amount of money you get the tour and a tasting afterwards.
[Brad] John, thank you so much for taking the time. to meet with me.
[John] It’s been my pleasure.
[Brad] You’ve done a fantastic job with this distillery it’s honestly it’s an amazing asset to the downtown community. If you guys haven’t come down to check out the distillery yet, you have to come see it.