In Beamsville, Ont., halfway along the highway between Hamilton and Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can spot a light blue and white barn tucked away on a side road.
Inside, distiller Geoff Dillon, BSc’10 (Biology and Economics), is busy tending to the stills and keeping a watchful eye on the front sales room. There, dozens of bottles of gin, vodka, and rye whisky bear the insignia of his namesake company, a brand that’s been making waves in the Canadian craft spirits industry over the last five years: Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers.
Starting a craft distillery, Dillon says, was an idea rooted in his time at Western.
“I just fell in love with distilling in undergrad, in a lab in bio-chem,” said the tall, chestnut-haired 32-year-old, whose eyes light up when he talks about his passion for producing fine spirits.
Dillon’s desire to understand the science behind spirits stems from his father, Peter Dillon. Looking back on his time growing up in Bracebridge, Ont., the younger Dillon recalls his bio-chemist dad – a scientist and professor with a Masters in Chemistry and a PhD in Zoology – collecting hundreds of bottles of scotch.
Dillon also takes cues from his business-minded father-in-law, Gary Huggins, who he met after falling for Huggins’ daughter during undergrad.
While living with several friends in a house on Saunby Street in London in 2004, Dillon’s recalls his future wife, Whitney, showing up for a St. Patrick’s Day party. “She came to the party,” he said. “And never left.”
Dillon’s father was instrumental in shaping his dream of starting a distillery after graduation. And so was Dillon’s father-in-law, a consultant and management coach. Both are now directly involved in the business, he says; the elder Dillon is an engineer and herb and botanicals expert, and Huggins is the co-founder.
While Huggins is pure business and “couldn’t care less about the science side” of distilling, Dillon’s father is pure science and “didn’t care about the business side,” Dillon said with a laugh. “Everything just kind of clicked, taking both their skills set and combining them.”
That pairing also mirrored Dillon’s own education. At Western, he studied biology and economics, with a handful of astronomy classes sprinkled in.
“I love the idea of how small and insignificant we are on the earth. Just a little speck of dust floating in the universe,” he said. “You realize, you only have one life – why not go out and do what you want to do?”
When he graduated with a double-major in 2007, Dillon set his sights on doing just that.
After briefly working in finance, Dillon trained abroad in areas such as Scotland and the United States while educating himself in the art of distilling. He also started raising money to open his dream distillery and poured every penny of his own money into the business, which officially launched five years ago when Dillon was just 27.
Since then, he’s watched the craft spirits industry boom as his own business thrives, expanding from a handful of spirits to dozens of award-winning types of gin, vodka, and rye whisky, alongside absinthe, limoncello, and various flavours of bitters.
Now, Dillon’s offerings are a staple at many LCBO locations and some of the country’s trendiest bars and restaurants, including hot spots like the downtown Toronto taco chain La Carnita – which collaborated with the distillery on Mexican mole-flavoured bitters.
It’s incredible success for someone just a decade out of school, but Dillon isn’t one to rest on his laurels. While he’s happy with his life right now – he lives with his wife, who’s now a physician, in a renovated house right beside the distillery – Dillon is setting his sight on broader offerings and future successes.
Speaking about his vision for the future, Dillon gets fired up. Pure, 100 per cent rye was his goal, he says. No corn, no barley.
“We want to be known as the king of rye in Canada.”