A distiller-farmer partnership that can’t be ‘beet’

During the next several months, stories highlighting the significant economic impacts, innovative projects, and leadership of Greenbelt Fund grantees will be appearing in some of the province’s most read agriculture publications, including The Grower, Ontario Farmer, Better Farming, and Country Guide East. We’ll be celebrating the success stories by publishing them here as well.

A Zephyr Organics farmer, left, and Charles Benoit, right, show off the new sugar beet spirit and its special ingredient.

Partnership with local organic vegetable farm fuels the ‘grain to glass’ movement in Ontario 

A new Toronto distillery and a local Greenbelt farm have teamed up to transform Ontario-grown sugar beets into a unique spirit.

Toronto Distillery Co., the first new distillery to be licensed in Toronto in more than 80 years, is a strong supporter of the movement to use local, seasonal ingredients to protect the environment, grow the region’s economy and enhance the taste of distilled spirits. As part of that grain to glass mission, the company found a strategic partner in Zephyr Organics, to launch a spirit unlike anything Canadians have tasted before.


The importance of craft distilling in Ontario
"This is an era where consumers want to know things. Think about wine – wine labels identify the type of grape, the growing region and even the year,” says Charles Benoit, Co-Founder of the Toronto Distillery Co. "It makes sense. The ingredients matter. It’s crazy to me that you go and look at the whisky shelf and most of the time you don’t even know what grain the whisky was distilled from."

Toronto Distillery Co.’s mission is to distill the province’s agricultural bounty. Benoit is passionate about distilling Ontario-grown organic grains and establishing relationships with local farmers so that consumers know the story behind the stock that is distilled. They always source locally grown grains, fruits and most recently – root vegetables.

A unique spirit
Benoit says the craft distilling industry is on a growth curve, and the Greenbelt Fund is helping local farmers tap into the market by creating opportunities for strategic partnerships.

"Our work is all about making sure Ontario’s farmers and processors can access new and different markets," says Kathy Macpherson, Vice President of the Greenbelt Fund.

In 2014, Toronto Distillery Co. received the first portion of their $14,500 grant from the Greenbelt Fund which led them to approach Zephyr Organics, a third generation Greenbelt-based family farm not far from Uxbridge. The project was to plant half an acre of sugar beets to create an all-new beet spirit distilled in the fashion of a whisky to uphold the beet’s earthy essence.

"The Greenbelt Fund investment helped us create an entirely innovative, brand new spirit offering," says Benoit. "I can say with 100 per cent certainty that it is going to be unlike anything in the Canadian marketplace."

The farmer-to-market connection
"Plugging into the supply chain of a giant, international spirit company is not viable for most mid-sized farms,” adds Benoit. “I think it’s important for craft distillers to establish relationships with local producers so that we can give consumers the full story behind what they are consuming."

Before being approached by Toronto Distillery Co., Zephyr Organics had never planted sugar beets.

"We are in a collaboration that wouldn’t have existed if the funding wasn’t there," says Joan Greaves, sales manager at Zephyr Organics. "We believe in relationship building. Yes, you have to make money but we want to be in a productive healthy relationship, in other words, an organic relationship with our partners and our customers."

Elevating Ontarians’ drinking experience
Unlike the Toronto Distillery Co., most whisky labels don’t share their mash bill with consumers. A whisky mash bill is a listing of grains and their respective proportions from which the whisky has been distilled.

"We want to elevate Ontarians' drinking experience so we give consumers the opportunity to try single-grain distillations of each of the staple whisky grains," says Benoit. "Each grain type carries its own whisky taste profile and we are committed to helping Ontarians develop their own authentic taste profiles by exploring whisky mash bills. When you leave our distillery, you’ll know for sure if you’re more of a corn or rye whisky drinker."