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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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Micro-distillery offers hand-crafted, authentic liquors

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Barry Bernstein, left, and Barry Stein, show off the sampling station for Still Waters’ adult beverages. [Paul Lungen photo]

Faced with a tempting array of hand-crafted, locally produced spirits, the intrepid reporter was faced with a conundrum that would tax the wisdom of Solomon: should he start with the single malt whiskey or go directly to the Canadian rye?

Solomon would no doubt still be tugging on his beard, weighing his options carefully in the time it took this reporter to go all-in for a wee dram of single malt, known colloquially as Scotch.

It was followed with an equally tasty sampling of the rye, a Canadian-style whiskey that was as smooth as the prairie grasslands, with flavours infused from the oak barrel, bourbon cask that had been its home for three years.

My late morning sampling at the headquarters of Still Waters Distillery – it was a cocktail hour somewhere, wasn’t it? – proved that there really is something to this micro-distillery business.

The products on hand at the distillery, located in a commercial plaza in Concord, showed that the two middle-aged Jewish guys behind the enterprise really know what they’re doing.

Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein – they share the middle name Michael, can you believe it? – are the proprietors behind Still Waters Distillery, a micro-distillery that has carved out a niche market among connosieurs of fine spirits.

As micro-distillers, they produce whiskeys and vodka, but at a fraction of the output of the big outfits, like Seagram and Wiser’s. “They spill in one day what we can produce in one year,” said Stein.

“They’re 10,000 times bigger,” added Bernstein.

But, after all, “Micro” does translate as “extremely small,” and that may in fact be part of the reason for their success. There’s a movement afoot among a segment of the population away from mass-produced anything to something smaller, local, hand-made, genuine and authentic. Perhaps run by a couple of guys named Barry.

In the alcohol business, it started with micro-breweries and small-scale wineries. With the advent of Still Waters, the Barrys have blazed a path for those who enjoy hard liquor.

In their Concord warehouse/distillery, 150 casks sit, with the heavenly nectars aging within. Each batch is produced by hand, with an attention to detail that only people who run their own business can provide.

The results are spirits that have garnered favourable reviews from experts and laymen alike. The final products are in demand in several U.S. states and they are shipped through brokers to a number of Canadian provinces. Just recently, the LCBO in their home province agreed to stock a Canadian rye whiskey under the company’s Stalk & Barrel label.

The LCBO already carries the company’s vodka. A 750-ml bottle of Still Waters Single Malt Vodka retails for  $36.95. The company’s single malt whiskeys sell for $69.95 for batches with 46 per cent alcohol, and $99.95 for “cask strength,” undiluted spirits with greater than 60 per cent alcohol content.

Each cask produces between 175 to 300 bottles; it varies because the warehouse in which the casks reside is subject to changes in weather. There’s expansion and contraction of the barrels as well as substantial evaporation –

“the angel’s share” it’s called. But it’s the expansion and contraction that brings more and more whiskey into contact with the wooden staves, where the flavours are enhanced with the characteristics left behind by the casks’ original contents, American bourbon whiskey.

The Barrys re-fill two casks a week, or about 100 per year. And they’re looking to expand by adding more casks and finding a bigger premises to house them.

The Barrys have long been devotees of fermented grains. They met some 20 years ago at their synagogue, Temple Kol Ami, where both served as president.

They became friends, as did their wives and children. The families took holidays together.

“Because we did a lot of pleasure travel together, we noticed there was a huge amount of single malt Scotches that never made it to the market in Canada,” said Stein.

The two began to inquire into importing the product to Canada.

Eventually, they founded “Premium Bottlers,” which bottled single malt whiskeys sent in casks from Scotland.

As one author recently wrote, “A beverage of leisure is a serious business, so, finding success they gave up their day jobs, Stein as the executive in charge of distribution for a large paint company; Bernstein from his own software business.

At the time, “we saw what was happening with craft distillers in the United States.” It was just taking off and there was no equivalent in Canada. “It intrigued us and we looked into it,” Stein said.

At first, “we had zero first-hand knowledge,” said Stein. But they liked what they saw and to learn more they completed courses offered at Cornell University in Ithica, N.Y.

They ordered $300,000 worth of hand-made equipment from Germany, which arrived in boxes requiring assembly, much like a giant Lego figure, or a furniture item from IKEA, but without the Allen key. Stein and Bernstein assembled the 450-liter solid copper still – the same “still” as in “Still Waters” – that forms the heart of the enterprise.

It took three weeks, but “we know it inside and out,” said Bernstein.

From there it was a matter of finding the right formula for the spirits. It took another six months to get that right

All the grains, the malted barley, rye, wheat and corn, is delivered to the distillery where the

Barrys mix and create their alcoholic concoctions.

Vodka came first, as unlike other spirits, it does not require time to age. They found a market for it, but as craft distillers, their production is limited and as a result, so is the income it generates. The rest of their capital was tied up in whiskeys aging in casks. In this venture, you have to have patience.

The Barrys acknowledge the business is still in the red, but they knew going in it would take some time to make a go of it.

“It’s a passion. It’s definitely a long-term plan,” said Bernstein.

“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Stein. “Those casks are our RRSPs.”

And while they’re waiting for the business to take off, the inventory makes for a lovely liquor libation good at any time of the day.

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