As John deftly lifts the copper whiskey thief
by its chain from the small round hole at the top of the virgin oak barrel, small splashes
of amber-coloured liquid overflow from the brim of the distilling tool and onto the barrel’s top. John’s son Cooper is standing close by. ‘Just look at that colour,’ he says, almost in awe. ‘Glorious,’ John responds, decanting a generous trickle of the alcohol into a couple of tumblers set atop the barrel. As father and son raise their glasses to inspect the stuff more closely, I take up my camera to capture this magical scene. It’s not every day that a person gets to document John and Cooper Sleeman – Canadian beverage alcohol royalty – inspecting the contents of a first-batch barrel of their inaugural traditional straight whisky. 

It’s late August, early afternoon, and the three of us are gathered in the impressive rack house at Spring Mill Distillery – John Sleeman’s ‘no expenses spared’ craft distillery built intoa former stone mill abutting the Speed River in Guelph’s storied ‘Ward’ neighbourhood. 

It’s a magical space: the perfect amalgam of metre-thick stone walls, heavy wooden beams, and natural diffused light. The distillery’s stills alone – among the largest hand-hammered copper units in North America – are enough to make even the most hardened whisky drinker buckle at the knees. Its wash backs – crafted by a father and son team in Scotland from Canadian douglas fir that was imported from Canada for the construction of these specific pieces of distilling equipment – are things of unadulterated beauty. And the place’s ‘Ward Bar’ – featuring the mill’s original hearth poised to warm the room with roaring fires during cooler months – is an elevated watering hole that any lover of fine spirits and creative cocktails will find to their liking. (The bar’s barrel aged negroni is a showstopper.) 

And yet, each time I visit it’s the rack house that draws me. The massive room, located three floors up from the distillery proper,
is packed with hundreds of barrels: some handcrafted for the distillery by Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville; others crafted closer to home from white oak pulled out of the woods near Belleville by an Amish farmer and his horse, by cooper Quinn Sleeman – John’s other son. The place is the embodiment of passion, hard work and, perhaps most poignantly, aspiration. ‘Because whisky takes at least three years to mature,’ John tells me, ‘getting a whisky distillery up and running
is all about looking to the future. While the investment has to be put up on day one, the fruits of a whisky distillery’s labour only begin to be felt years later.’ 

As I look around the rack house – taking in the scene of barrel upon barrel upon barrel – the weight of John’s remarks sinks in. Everything in here was crafted (by Spring Mill master distiller Doan Bellman and his team) with the future in mind. Aspirational, indeed. ‘Every barrel in here is on its own unique journeyto maturation,’ Cooper remarks as he waves his hand toward the casks in front of him. ‘Some of these are filled with pot-finished –or Irish-style – whisky; others are filled with single malt. Some with Canadian rye, and yet others with traditional straight – or Bourbon- style – whisky.’ Like the one the three of us are gathered around. 

John lifts his glass, sniffs its contents, and takes a small sip. ‘This barrel isn’t quite ready,’ he notes, ‘but it’s getting there.’ Cooper concurs, and then turns towards me. ‘A few months ago,’ he begins, ‘I would have told you that the whisky in this barrel was still years away from maturation. But now I’d have to say that it might actually be ready to bottle in mere months.’ When I ask for an explanation, Cooper is quick to respond: ‘It’s our ever- changing Canadian climate. Each barrel ‘breathes’ with the seasons. First its contents are absorbed into its white oak staves. This happens at different rates depending on temperature and humidity. Then the contents are released again. As the barrel ‘breathes’, its content ‘ages’. This year’s hot summer months really seem to have sped up this aging process.’ 

Just a bit longer, then, for the whisky in this particular barrel. Lucky for me (and for spirits lovers everywhere who have been waiting expectantly for Spring Mill’s first whisky release) dozens of other barrels from this first batch have already been bottled and distributed. And even luckier for me, I’ve been gifted one – here, in the rack house – by John Sleeman himself. I’ve placed it, appropriately enough, on an oak barrel of maturing traditional straight whisky a few feet away. 

During a break in the action, I can’t resist looking
at the fifth glass vessel John has conferred on
me – intrigued by the design of the thing. Straight away I note the distinctive, and somehow familiar, shape of its neck*. ‘We designed it to echo the silhouette of a Sleeman beer bottle,’ John tells me. Ah, of course. What a fantastic ‘easter egg’, I think to myself – a subtle visual cue (or ‘wink’) that connects the Sleeman beer business with its emergent spirits business. I like this game and go searching for more ‘eggs’. I tell John that I’m intrigued by the sepia- toned scene (done in the style of a nineteenth- century engraving) stretching across the label, from edge to edge. It features a horse-drawn wagon transporting barrels of whisky (presumably) crossing in front of an old stone building, while a handful of folks chat around a large fountain in front of the place. 

‘That’s a reproduction of an engraving of the first Sleeman distillery that my great great grandfather founded in St Davids in 1836,’ John tells me, adding: ‘He called it Spring Mill.’ Sensing that there are
more stories lurking behind the rather intricate artwork, I ask John about the other image on the label – a black and white silhouetted illustration of three men, each defined, it seems, by a tool or a distinctive object. One is holding a coopering tool, one grasping a bottle, and the third wearing a tie. ‘My boys and me,’ John tells me, noticing where I’ve cast my querying eye. Quinn the cooper. Cooper the manager. And John the businessman. Hearing the sense of pride in John’s voice and sensing an opportunity to delve a bit into his sentimental side, I ask him what it means to have his sons working with him in the family business. 

‘It makes me happy,’ the doting father begins, before the businessman adds, ‘as long as they don’t mess up.’ Cooper chuckles nervously, and I realize that any further move in the direction of sentiment won’t be realized today. John, always the businessman, observes matter-of-factly: ‘I never forced my kids to join the family business. In fact, I never even encouraged them to get into it.’ Indeed, John himself didn’t want to resurrect the Sleeman name when he first found out about the family business – which had been shuttered for fifty years because of less than aboveboard business practices that may or may not have included running booze to Al Capone. All that was before John brought the family business back to life in 1988. Recently his sons joinedin. ‘They’re here now and I’m happy for it,’ he observes. ‘Ultimately, though, their success rides solely on how well they do at their jobs – and not on their relation with me.’ Fair enough. 

And so far so good, it would seem. Indeed, while John still works long hours at the brewery, it’s Cooper who manages muchof what goes on at the distillery and Quinn who skilfully constructs barrels for its most important product. ‘By the time all of the contents of these barrels mature,’ Cooper notes, ‘we’ll have crafted sixteen different whiskies for release. Some will be complex, daring, sophisticated. Others – like the traditional straight whisky in your bottle there – will be more mellow, approachable, familiar.’ I pick up the bottle, turn it in my hand, and crack the seal. Now’s as good a time as any, I think to myself, chuckling discreetly at the thought that my first taste of the stuff will be in this distillery in the presence of two of the Sleeman clan. 

‘It’s best with a bit of ice,’ John tells me as I pour some of the whisky into three more tumblers (which are not in short supply here), ‘but this will do.’ We raise our glasses, hold eye contact, and take a nip. It goes down smooth. Warm. Wonderful. Fulfilling. I set my glassdown on the nearest barrel and ask John what he thinks of all this: the distillery he’s built, the brand he’s resurrected, the legacy he’s building on as a true beverage alcohol baron. He takes a minute, stares into his glass, and answers slowly: ‘Ultimately’, he begins, ‘I’m pleased with how far we’ve come – and I’m happy to keep going. To be sure, I’ve never aspired to rest on any laurels. Instead,’ he continues, ‘I’m most content when faced with a challenge and meeting it head on.’ 

John pauses, and then adds: ‘What we’re trying to do here is create strong products – whiskies and other spirits that we can stand behind. Products that make us – and our community – proud. As you can see,’ he adds, motioning towards the barrels all around us, ‘we’re in this for the long haul. Nothing about this distillery has been an effort to make a quick buck. Instead, it’s a slow burn – a project where we can work each day to grow something that we hope will be respected not only here but across Canada and beyond.’ 

While John pauses for a minute, Cooper and I stand in the stillness of the rack house. Then John delivers a succinct conclusion: ‘Ultimately, quality is always in fashion.’ 

Passion, hard work, aspiration – and quality.