BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘A sledgehammer. A bag of corn. Two men. And six weeks.’ I turn to Cooper, raise my eyebrows, and fix my gaze upon the two massive copper objects in front of us. And ask (again): ‘So that’s really how they were made?’
‘By hand,’ Cooper assures me. ‘Hammer stroke by hammer stroke.’
The stills are magnificent. Ornate. Gleaming russet. Like a cross between some oversized horns and pieces of Brobdingnagian jewelry. I imagine the two Scottish fellas – master still-makers – who would have spent weeks beating corn against copper. The muscle. And sweat. And noise. I imagine, too, the completed stills being loaded onto a ship in some Scottish port and traversing the high seas from the land of Scotch whisky to the shores of our own mighty Speed. Here. In downtown Guelph. Where they are now ensconced: at Spring Mill Distillery.
‘They’re mesmerizing,’ I say bluntly. It’s an understatement.
‘Among the largest hand-hammered copper stills in North America,’ Cooper tells me. ‘My father demanded only the best for the distillery.’ Cooper’s father? John Sleeman. Yep – that one. A soul whose blood runs deep with the histories, traditions and myths of brewing – and, albeit less well known, distilling – in our region. ‘When my great-great-great- grandfather founded Sleeman Brewery back in 1834 in St David’s [near Niagara],’ Cooper recounts, ‘he actually also started up a distillery in 1836 named ‘Spring Mill’.
When he relocated his brewery to Guelph around 1850, he shuttered the distillery permanently.’ Cooper pauses before adding: ‘Until now.’
I study the copper behemoths a while longer before Cooper leads me to a freight elevator that delivers us up a couple floors into the distillery’s rack house – a glorious stone-walled, wood-floored, high- ceilinged warehouse filled with a seemingly endless assemblage of oak barrels. Full oak barrels – aging four different kinds of whiskies that will be released when they’re ready.
Cooper resumes his narrative. ‘Most of these barrels were handcrafted for us at Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville – from white oak pulled out of some woods near Belleville by an Amish farmer and his horses.’ He goes on: ‘Our more unique and one-off spirits will be casked in Canadian white oak barrels produced for us by master cooper Pete Bradford, who will work alongside his apprentice – my brother Quinn.’ A tenacious family legacy, indeed.
While I wander through the rows of barrels, something strikes me as peculiar: a single leather armchair positioned in the far corner of this vast room, almost hidden among the surrounding barrels, facing a large window overlooking the Speed just below. ‘It’s my dad’s,’ Cooper states matter-of-factly. ‘He loves coming up here with a good drink and looking out over the water.’ I imagine John Sleeman slipping up here, unnoticed, to his private perch. Blending history and myth.
Surveying his domain.
We head back downstairs – this time to the distillery’s ‘Ward Bar’ (aptly named after the Guelph neighbourhood in which the distillery is housed). Just outside the bar entrance, a fully-restored Ford ‘Model T’ pick-up – loaded with Spring Mill barrels – sits on display. ‘It’s in perfect working order,’ Cooper remarks. ‘In fact, we’re planning to do local deliveries with it later this summer.’ I make a mental note to look out for it.
Beyond the ‘Model T’ I spot a number of distinctly patina’d tanks. When I ask Cooper about them, he gestures towards the bar’s nineteenth-century stone fireplace, guides me to a couple wonderfully-inviting brown leather armchairs positioned directly in front of it, and orders us a couple signature cocktails
(a ‘Mill Mule’ for me and a ‘Sundial’* for himself). ‘When construction began on this site,’ he tells me, ‘we discovered those tanks directly underneath the ‘Ward Bar’, beneath an ancient trap door.’ My attention piqued, he continues: ‘Were they used for distilling booze made on the premises? Or were they prohibition-era holding tanks used to store illegal spirits distilled in homes all over the Ward? We don’t know.’ Cooper goes on: ‘We wanted to leave them where they were and integrate a glass floor into the bar so people could catch a glimpse of the possible beginnings of distilling in Guelph. But that didn’t work, so we had them placed on display outside so folks can see them on their way into the distillery. To get in the mood, as it were.’
I push back into my armchair, compelled to take a fresh look at the imposing fireplace and exposed stone walls. The wonderfully-hip chandelier and nineteenth-century concrete floors. The wrap-around bar and racks of neatly-folded merch. And the people too. The bar is full. ‘We wanted to create something much more than a tasting room,’ Cooper continues, ‘so we went for it.’ He raises his voice a bit so I can hear him above the din of laughter and chatter all around us. ‘Almost two hundred years ago, when this building was a mill, it was a hub of community. In fact you could argue that this place invigorated this community.’ Cooper goes on: ‘We’re hoping that this bar – and, by extension, the distillery itself – will help re-animate this part of town as a proper hub once again.’
I can see that it’s already begun to happen. The place is packed – a fact that surely gratifies Cooper. And John Sleeman, too – a soul who could, at this very moment, be sittinga couple floors above us. Alone in an armchair. Pondering life. And drinking to this: his latest achievement.