Ontario colleges are capitalizing on the microdistillery boom
Aspiring distillers have traditionally looked overseas for formal training, but more avenues into the industry are opening up in Canada
By Kelly Boutsalis
Nov 20, 2017
Courtesy of Kinsip
The tasting room at Prince Edward County-based distillery Kinsip.
At the Kinsip House of Fine Spirits in Prince Edward County, a transport truck full of grains is stuck in the mud just outside the craft distillery’s farm house where chickens are roaming the ground.
It’s an unexpected problem for Jeremiah Soucie, head distiller and co-owner of Kinsip, and not one that going to distillery school will necessarily prepare you for.
Many elements in distilling can be taught on the job, but certain things require formal education.
“I equate this to a professional kitchen,” Soucie says. “You’ve got the master distiller – he’s the executive chef but he may never cook. He designs and develops. Then there’s the sous and the line – positions you can train, but they couldn’t design a recipe themselves.”
Soucie got into distilling after 15 years as a critical care paramedic in Ottawa. His two employees learned their trade via several one-week courses in the United States. A growing number of colleges in Ontario are capitalizing on the microdistillery boom that has grown to more than 100 nationwide.
This month, Niagara College will break ground on an on-campus teaching distillery – the first of its kind in Canada – that will offer a distilling program due to launch in September 2018.
“It was probably close to four years ago when we decided this was going to be the next step,” says Craig Youdale, dean of Niagara’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute. “We already had our beer school and our wine school so it seemed like the next logical piece of the puzzle.”
The one-year full-time graduate program will offer three streams: practical, where students work hands-on in the distillery a sensory and science course, which focuses on chemistry, microbiology and sensory analysis and business, all about regulations, certifications and operations.
“There were less than 100 breweries when we started to put the program together, and there are now 300-plus breweries in Ontario,” says Youdale. “We see the same opportunity in distilling. I don’t think growth is going to be quite as dramatic, but we do see some expansion in the artisan-distilling area.”
He believes wineries and breweries will likely expand by adding spirits to their production lines since the equipment and science are similar.
With no educational paths for future distillers, knowledge and training have come from learning from someone already in the business.
Kinsip’s owners – Soucie, his wife, Sarah Waterston, her brother Michael Waterston and his partner, Maria Hristova – have varying educational backgrounds, from crisis and emergency management and computer science to chemistry and economics.
They recently advertised to hire a distiller and few applicants had professional experience. One person had a master’s of science in brewing and distilling from a distance-learning course offered via Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. (They haven’t made the hire yet.)
Courtesy of Kinsip
Barrels at Kinsip’s distillery. Distillers typically learn the craft from others in the field.
Mill Street Brewery’s Head of Distilling Martha Lowry – the only female distiller in Toronto – took an indirect route into the field.
After doing a marine biology degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax and a horticulture degree at Guelph University, she fell in love with distillation and taught herself by reading textbooks used in Heriot-Watt and London, UK-based Institute of Brewing & Distilling’s programs.
From there, she worked in the tasting room at Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers in Beamsville, and then moved onto brewing at Mill Street before taking over distilling.
“I had a lot of science knowledge already, so I just decided I could learn it,” she says. “If you’re just coming out of high school, you definitely need something science-wise if you want to do the production side.”
However, the business of distilling is unique. The industry has its own distribution models, taxation and regulation, and the production has different sales and business requirements than brewing, for example.
In addition, worker safety is an issue. Alcohol vapour is extremely flammable, for example.
“When I was involved with a planning team for the building, I learned the term ‘explosion proof,’” says Youdale. “If you don’t make the product correctly and if the science isn’t correct, you can produce something that can hurt and harm people.”
In September, Centennial College’s business school began offering a graduate certificate in business management for the alcohol industry that focuses solely on selling. Located at the school’s Eglinton Learning Site, the program covers export strategies, advertising regulations and liability issues.
“We found there were lots of people [who] lacked the background and specific skills needed to manage and trade intoxicating liquors,” says Barry O’Brien, the dean of Centennial’s School of Business.
Though students can also go into beer and wine business management, the full-time program is relevant to someone interested in becoming an operations or marketing manager at a distillery. The inaugural edition received a lot of interest so Centennial may offer part-time courses in the future.
Niagara College is also considering part-time options, but O’Brien doesn’t view that school as competition. “We’re two sides of the same coin,” he says. “They make it, we sell it.”
George Brown College also offers a continuing education course in spirits, as well as a post-graduate degree in wine and beverage business management.
“Learning on the job is a fantastic opportunity, but that is focused on dollars and production,” says Youdale. “When you come to an education facility, the focus is not on how much you sell or what needs to be made, but what you need to learn.”