New craft distillery set to open its doors to the public
By Justin Prince
For the first time since prohibition, Windsor-Essex County will be home to a craft distillery.
Wolfhead Distillery, on Howard Avenue in McGregor, unveiled what will be the first craft whisky and vodka producer in the region during a media event Wednesday. The facility will have a large event space capable of holding up to 100 people inside and 120 people outside. A restaurant, bar and a retail store will also be on-site. Wolfhead’s distilling room and its process can be viewed from the main space through a large window. The next closest distiller of its kind is based in Stratford, Ont.
“We want to make this an exciting place for both locals and visitors for repeat business,” said Wolfhead president and owner, Tom Manherz. “We have tremendous support from Tourism Windsor-Essex and the community.”
Wolfhead and its co-master distillers, Karl Lonsbery and Ryan Bezaire, worked with consultants Steve Wright and Dan DeMarco to develop its first seven flavours of vodka and whisky for the launch. Some of the flavours include coffee whisky liqueur, apple caramel whisky and banana caramel-flavoured vodka – Manherz noted he “has a bit of a sweet tooth” when asked about them. The products and the food served at the restaurant are to be all made using local ingredients. The spirits also use water rinsed in limestone from the Amherst Quarries nearby. Wright and DeMarco, who are both former Master Distillers at Hiram Walker and Sons Ltd., have helped more than 20 other craft distilling and brewing operations prepare their equipment and develop their flavours.
“This has really been an excellent start-up,” said DeMarco, who has been a consultant for the past seven or eight years. “We’ve been really pleased with the product that we’ve got. We’ve got a flexible system. It’s a showpiece in terms of how it’s displayed.”
Manherz was inspired to run his own facility after starting a third-party bottling operation for smaller product lines a few years ago. He then went to work on building the distillery on the same property as his other business, Timberwolf Lumber Products.
There was a similar development to his in the 1840s, when sawmill owner and politician, John McLeod, founded his own distillery within four years of starting his main business. McLeod sold the distillery to Hiram Walker in 1874. By comparison, the process only took Manherz two years to complete.
“It was taking so long, I thought we weren’t going to be the first ones. I thought someone else was going to sneak in there ahead of us,” said Manherz. “It eventually got done and I think … it was worth the wait.”
He explained it had taken this long for a distiller like his to open because of the expenses involved. The distillery, which is being built in two phases, will have cost roughly $1.5 million to build once its latter projects are complete.
“They (the government) still has a long way to go as (they still have) the old prohibition rules,” said Manherz. He mentioned Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario MPP, Tim Hudak, is working on legislation to get craft distillers in Ontario “on a level playing field with the wineries and beer producers.”
Wolfhead is part of a growing industry in North America. The craft distiller is one of around 60 start-ups of its kind in Canada. There are also another 200 facilities in the U.S. The increase in craft distilleries comes at the same time multiple start-up breweries are opening across the area. Windsor-Essex is currently home to three craft brewers and numerous microbreweries. Microbrewers produce no more than 15,000 barrels a year while craft breweries are allowed to produce up to two million barrels with some limitations.
“I think people are starting to catch on to it being where the quality is,” said Lonsbery. “With the craft distilleries and craft breweries, the owners and the people working there are more concerned about what the customer is going to think at the end of the day. They want to take their time and they want to be innovative. They want to create new cool things that haven’t been done before.”
Manherz has a lot of plans for the future of Wolfhead. He noted that he and Lonsbery will be working in tandem to open a new craft brewery on the site sometime within the next year. There are also plans to beatify its outdoor patio space. Wolfhead is the first distiller in Ontario to receive a Tied House License, which allows producers to sell local wines, craft beers and craft cocktails. Manherz indicated it is in negotiations with St. Clair College to run a distilling and wine making introductory course in the near future.
Wolfhead has already received multiple event inquires, bus tour stops and media requests from TV stations in the U.S., according to Manherz.
“It’s going to be an exciting and long summer.”
Wolfhead Distillery will open its doors to the public May 27. It will hold its official grand opening sometime this June.