Inside Nova Scotia's booming distillery business

Posted : 12/27/2016


CBC News
By Stephen Puddicombe

December 27, 2016

James Joyce may have predicted Nova Scotia's future decades ago when he wrote, "The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude."

In the province's case, it's also making for a profitable one that the world is paying attention to.

Nova Scotia is fast becoming known for something other than lobster, lighthouses and friendly people. Distillers are conjuring everything from whisky to rum to vodka — and they are being recognized as some of the best in the world, winning awards at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Welcoming distillers

Nova Scotia may very well have more distillers per capita than anywhere else in Canada.

A few years ago, the Maritimes' largest province rolled out the red carpet for craft distillers. There were few restrictions on what they could do.

Nova Scotia craft distillers can use much smaller stills than their counterparts in Ontario, which can save them tens of thousands of dollars.

The government markup on Nova Scotia-produced alcohol was reduced to between 60 and 80 per cent per bottle from 160 per cent. The markup can be reduced another 10 per cent if distillers use Nova Scotia agricultural products.

"It enables them to put products on our shelves at a price that is palatable to consumers," says Heather MacDougall, a spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp.

The provincial Crown corporation also cut the annual licence fee for distillers to $500 from $2,000.

The government increased production thresholds and introduced a graduated markup based on annual production.

Only Saskatchewan has come close to the Nova Scotia model for craft distillers reducing taxes and cutting red tape.

Liquid gold

Guysborough, one of Canada's oldest continuously settled communities, has seen the direct benefits of the province's policy.

The small community fell on hard times until a revival of sorts in the form of Glynn Williams, an Ontario businessman and engineer. He fell in love with the area and decided to give back in the form of liquid gold.

Williams created Authentic Seacoast, a company distilling fine whisky, rum and brewing craft beer.

He believes the industry is making an impact around Nova Scotia, and says craft breweries and distilleries employ twice as many people in the province as their big corporate counterparts.

"Here in Guysborough, we employ 30 people in a village of three to four hundred," he said. 

A model for other provinces

Williams and other craft distillers believe Nova Scotia could be a template for the rest of Canada.

"When they see the impact small changes in public policy, in terms of fostering craft industries, can have ... I think they should be encouraging the small guys."

There are new distilleries popping up all over the province, most in rural areas like River John on the Northumberland Strait.

Jarret Stuart comes honestly to whisky distilling. His great-grandfather was born in Scotland and distilled scotch until he moved to British Columbia and became a doctor. Prohibition hurt distilling, unless you were a physician who could get around the law by prescribing alcohol.

"When Canada had prohibition, he had a chance with another doctor to sell prescriptions and he was able to finance the local school and hospital," Stuart said. "I thought that's a great way to give back to the community."

History in a bottle

The name of Stuart's whisky came from a discovery in the barn on his property. While renovating, he found the date "Oct. 18/39" written in pencil on one of the beams. He found the date referred to an unnamed hurricane and it was the fifth hurricane of that season. It was not named because only storms that develop in the Caribbean have titles.

He named his whisky "Hurricane 5."

Stuart, an Albertan transplant, settled in to River John to follow in his great-grandfather's footsteps. But he wants to go further and is glad the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. is helping craft distillers explore the possibilities.

"Let us see which types of markets are building," he said. "We are seeing co-product potential now for our spent grains for feeding cattle in the area. We need to let these [ideas] take root."

From rum runner to distiller

Julie Shore pours a couple of rum toddies at her Halifax Distilling Company. Just a stone's throw from the harbour, the storefront has probably has seen a few rum runners, even privateers, in its time.

She says she likes direction of this journey so far but she wants even more change in the form of greater tax reductions.

"The government is so dependent on those [taxes and markups] it is collecting for the general revenues that it is hard to change, but in the long run it would pay off so much more," she said.

The Halifax Distillery Company doubles as a casual bar. Several people escape the windswept snowy day outside by dropping in for a nip.

And they make it clear they don't buy Nova Scotia spirits just because they're locally made.

James Marshall is a Scottish transplant now living in Halifax.

The thing that really surprised me was the quality," he said. "I'm happy to buy not just because it's local, but because of the way it's made and it tastes great as well."


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