Crimson Rye is the latest whisky from 66Gilead, one of my favorite Canadian micro-distillers. This rural distillery takes its name from its street address in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The distillery sits on 80 tranquil and beautifully maintained acres in the heart of this popular tourist destination. Year round, visitors smile for photos among a scattering of grey-weathered outbuildings. In summer they amble across the broad green lawns, accompanied by an ever-scurrying flock of multi-colored chickens.
The main attraction at 66Gilead is clearly the frequently packed tasting room on the main floor of a restored 19th century home built by a wealthy hop farmer, Bert Cooper.
Today, in order to meet fire code, the distillery itself occupies a new metal structure, though the rest of the outbuildings remain as they were in Bert Cooper’s era. There’s an oast house – a hop drying kiln – complete with slatted floors and brick ovens that provided gentle heat for drying. It’s an education to see how hops were dried over a century ago and how large the scale of brewing operations was, even then.
I first visited 66Gilead a couple of years ago. “The County” was built by hard-working farmers, and recently it has become home to some of Canada’s elite writers and musicians.
My day began when I joined a few dozen well-heeled, back-to-the-earth retirees and aging hippies for breakfast and single-estate coffee at the Tall Poppy Café in Wellington. Some long-time residents are not amused that these newcomers beautify their properties with brightly painted old farm machinery and heritage vegetable stands.
I’m back in The County for the launch of Crimson Rye. It’s a luscious big whisky, mature well beyond it’s 42 months in barrel. “It’s the heat,” Peter Stroz explains as we walk around in the distillery. After filling, the barrels are stacked in the distillery building to mature. Even though the stills are not working today, Peter concedes, “It’s hot in here!”
Michael, son of Peter Stroz, has a theory about why the spirits from 66Gilead distillery are so consistently good. “You really have to want to do this,” he tells me. “There are so many government regulations and obstacles that you really have to be determined to succeed.”
Michael is a recent graduate in software engineering, and minds the distillery during the week while the owners (his parents Peter Stroz and Sophia Pantazi) work at their day jobs. Both are radiologists in Toronto, a commute that takes them about two-and-a-half hours.
This is a genuine small batch distillery and here that means one to three barrels. “Why should I do more?” asks Sophia, “I want quality not volume.”
That attention to quality and detail is reflected in the oil paintings that hang in the distillery guesthouse. Sophia is also an accomplished painter. She may spend weekdays reading x-rays, but in her soul, I think Sophia is an artist.
“Sophia is the creative one,” Peter confirms, “I’m just the property manager.”
In Canada, grain spirit must be aged for at least three years before it can be called whisky. Crimson Rye is the first mature rye to come from 66Gilead. Even so, their rye spirit – what some would call “white rye” – has been available in local liquor stores for several years. Don’t tell martini or whisky snobs, but it makes a heck of a great dirty martini.
As chickens run clucking around the property, a clanging sound from the Carriage House Cooperage tells me that Pete Bradford is pounding hoops onto a new barrel. I venture back to find some 40 people gathered around his charring furnace, a single barrel late-18th-century working antique. He is about to finish a newly made local-oak cask.
Carefully he places the barrel over the fire and soon it is crackling. “When it starts to ping it’s ready to ignite,” he tells the intrigued onlookers. But this one is a slow starter. It takes almost ten minutes for those distinct pinging sounds to begin then Bradford gets into position. Once the barrel ignites he lets it burn for about 12 seconds then douses it with a pail of water. Even the fire is hand crafted. It’s fueled with 100% white oak scrap.
This is physically challenging work and Bradford tells me he will pass the cooperage on to a new apprentice cooper before year’s end. Canada’s last working cooperage will remain in operation, though he explains that it will likely move elsewhere in The County.
It’s now 2 in the afternoon and a busload of tourists has arrived for a distillery tour and a tasting. Canadian distilleries are notoriously disinterested in tours. 66Gilead is an exception. Visitors are more than welcome here and there’s plenty to keep them occupied.
“Our conversion rate is outstanding,” Sophia grins. I wonder for an instant if our conversation has suddenly turned religious, until she points to the visitors.
“Look at that, over half of them are taking a bottle or two home with them.”
In addition to Crimson Rye and Wild Oak Whisky, 66Gilead also serves vodka, gin, shochu, and barrel-aged rum in the tasting room. “We distil every drop on site,” says Sophia. “It really hurts the craft distillery image that some people use grain neutral spirits.”
Peter nods in agreement. It’s obvious to see how satisfying it is for them to make spirits that are hand crafted in minute batches. I have to remind myself that Peter and Sophia spend most of their week in white coats, tending to patient’s medical needs, and not looking after these barrels.
I ask Peter about their dual focus. “I’m just as passionate about medicine. But here I can chat and joke and share stories with people. At the hospital there is always that element of doctor-patient confidentiality.”
They are genuinely welcoming hosts, Sophia Pantazi and Peter Stroz, and spending a day at 66Gilead in Prince Edward County is certainly worth the drive if Toronto is your base. Experience their hospitable spirit and taste their distilled spirit and you’ll likely end up discovering a bottle worth bringing home with you.