WILLIBALD: WHAT’S IN A NAME
by Chris Tiessen
What’s in a name?’ Juliet asks her soulmate, Romeo, in that most tragic of Shakespearian romances. It’s an important question that drives to the very heart of their story. Juliet knows that last names denote clan identity. First names, on the other hand, identify us as individuals in the immediate here and now. As for middle names – they are, more often than not, relegated to obscurity or even reduced to a single letter. For many of us they might seem like odd tags with which we never really identify – and might even attempt to keep hidden.
It’s a cheeky thing, then, that Waterloo Region’s newest distillery is named after the middle name of the grandfather of two of its founders. It’s a middle name for which this particular grandfather – Richard Feicht – has had little affection, and which he has made efforts to conceal wherever possible – even going so far as to keep it off his driver’s license.
‘For years, we’ve playfully teased our grandfather about his middle name,’ says Jordan van der Heyden, one of three co-founders of Willibald Farm Distillery. Jordan’s brother Nolan adds: ‘It became an ongoing family joke, but was always done out of love. He’d tell us not to call him by his middle name. We’d do it anyways. And we’d all end up laughing together.’
When Jordan, Nolan and their childhood friend Cam Formica decided, then, in 2013, to open a distillery at the van der Heyden family farm, it didn’t take long for the three young entrepreneurs – all recent university graduates with big dreams – to turn grandfather’s hidden handle into an emerging brand. At first grandfather Richard didn’t believe the boys when they told him the name they had settled on. ‘We didn’t believe it ourselves,’ Jordan laughs. ‘But after a while, we realized that Willibald really did check off so many boxes of what represented the distillery for us.’
Including an abiding sense of community that links so many aspects of the enterprise together. Ties that bind. To family. To landscape (grandfather Richard continues to live just a few kilometres from the farm distillery, near Ayr). To the area’s rich German heritage. Ties that clearly run much more than name deep. Ties that find expression also in the fabulous immediate physical space the farm distillery occupies.
Dominating the distillery’s gorgeous event space are the historic wood beams the Willibald team reclaimed from the recently-demolished family barn. Some of them span more than sixty feet. Dropped off by a neighbor and installed on-site are the original 1930s Ayr street lights whose almost-whimsical circular design has since been incorporated as a key icon in the distillery’s branding. The almost-gothic font and bright yellow colours of the Willibald logo denote a German rural past that speaks to family, community and heritage. And to ‘Willibald’ himself.
‘Our logo and overall branding is an integral part of who we are and what the distillery represents,’ says Cam, whose primary role at the distillery is marketing the business. ‘It’s our business’ first point of contact with a growing audience of craft distillery fans – even before they taste what we’re distilling.’
And what exactly are the ‘boys Willibald’ distilling? First up is a barrel-aged gin, with a unique amber colour and smooth floral notes. ‘It took us eight months and over 100 iterations to get the gin the way we want it,’ Nolan, who’s taken on the role of head distiller, remarks. ‘There are so many possibilities with gin – it’s an endless creative process.’ A process that has included, as all hand-crafted distilleries should, the construction (by Nolan, Cam and Jordan) of their own 4000-litre open top douglas fir fermenter, inspired by the boys’ visits to distilleries down south. They’ll be releasing more as the distillery continues to grow and when their whisky – already in casks – reaches its appropriate age to bottle.
One thing’s for certain. Willibald Farm Distillery is here to stay. A fantastic location. Gorgeous event space with several food truck-meet-cocktail events in the works for this summer. Innovative branding. And a gin (for starters) that’s bound to become a go-to for evening drinks with family and friends.
I am so excited for these three founders and their phenomenal enterprise. Though not half as excited, I bet, as they must be. And as grandfather Richard Willibald Feicht, who now loves the name (and can seldom be found without the distillery’s t-shirt) surely is.