Ironworks Distillery’s Inspired Artistry
Over the course of 16 months, four casks of Ironworks Distillery’s fine amber rum bobbed around the seven seas in the hold of the Barque Picton Castle tall ship. Once back on land in Lunenburg this past June, the rum—now decanted into beautiful, locally designed porcelain bottles and placed in finely crafted Nova Scotia pine boxes—started shipping out to eager fans. In high demand, and selling for $325 a bottle, this Around the World Rum shows how far distillery owners Pierre Guevremont and Lynne MacKay will go to create unique and delicious booze. And, it illustrates, says MacKay, how much Pierre is a sucker for a story.
“We already had a product called Rum Boat Rum, which is aged on our own rum boat, a barge that sits in Lunenburg Harbour all year long. The theory is that harnessing the energy of the ocean to encourage the interaction of the spirit and the wood is a way of enhancing the value of ageing in wooden barrels,” Guevremont explains. “When we heard the Picton Castle was going on its world voyage, we thought it would be a coup if we could get a barrel on the ship. They said, ‘Hell, we can take four barrels, and that’s where it began.’”
The story is what sells the rum, says MacKay, “Plus the fact that we’re helping them with their scholarship fund by splitting the profits. That’s the thing, anyone can sell a bottle of rum, but if you can sell a bottle of rum with a story, people will love it more.”
OFF TO A GREAT START
Ironworks Distillery makes its home in a dreamy set-up on the Lunenburg waterfront. Their sweet showroom is housed in a former blacksmith’s shop, with the copper still on show, and the bottles of spirits and liqueurs catching the light just so. When the couple set up the distillery back in 2009, there was nothing like it in the province. Ahead of the wave, but confident that a distillery was a sound business idea based on the growth of the artisan distilling movement in the US and the wine industry here in Nova Scotia, Guevremont and MacKay bought the old forge, started making spirits, and found success right out of the gate.
Though, of course, the couple was nervous about starting their venture, they were pretty confident that it would be a sound move. Nova Scotia is, after all, known for its abundance of fruit, and creating a gourmet, local product in a town that’s such a popular tourist destination felt like a smart idea. “And being the first artisan distillery, we thought we’re going to get a lot of publicity just because it’s so interesting, so different, and so sexy that we really won’t have to spend money on advertising.”
They opened in June of 2009 and had a solid first summer. “We kept running out of product, which certainly increased our confidence about the viability,” says MacKay. Locals were thrilled to have the distillery there too, though one neighbour was concerned about emissions from the brewing process. “We assured them the emissions would be minimal and nothing compared to the soft coal that had been burned in this building for a hundred years,” says Guevremont. “The day we opened, that same neighbour brought us a group of about 10 visiting US sailors that had just showed up on her doorstep. She trotted them down to the distillery, and they all bought a bunch of stuff. That felt pretty good.”
ALWAYS GROWING, TELLING MORE STORIES
Ironworks Distillery has been a Nova Scotia success for a decade now, and although they still operate in much the same as in their early days, they’ve grown in several ways. Most notably, with their ownership of Liquid Assets, the local craft beverage store found in the departure lounge at Halifax Stanfield International Airport. Nowadays, you can pick up your lobster downstairs before going through security, then grab a few bottles of local spirits, wines, ciders, or beers before boarding, taking a taste of the Maritimes with you wherever you land.
Owning a store at the airport was never part of the couple’s business plan, but when the opportunity came up, they seized it. The airport wanted someone selling locally made alcoholic beverages post-security, and although the tender was out there for other, potentially bigger operators, they weren’t fast or agile enough to jump in. The airport wanted it done quickly, and Guevremont and MacKay were able to act, coming up with a plan to showcase not just their goods, but those of other producers across the province. “We said we’d represent everybody, commit to not making this our playpen, and put the proposal together with the blessing of all of those players. And it worked,” explains MacKay. Now they’re telling other producers’ stories and getting more Nova Scotian products out into the world.
In the more than three years since opening, Liquid Assets has put a lot of money back into the pockets of local producers. “Everything about the store is reflective of our commitment to show people how much good stuff is made here. Because the percentage of local products sold through the NSLC is still minuscule, and we really believe that made in Nova Scotia equals jobs in Nova Scotia.” (At the peak of summer, the couple has around 30 people on their payroll. And of course, selling more local products means other producers grow too.)
Not that Liquid Assets is a licence to print money. The realities of running a retail store in a secure area are tough, as is staffing a location that is open from 7 am to 9 pm, 365 days a year. “Just the logistics of getting things into that store is twice what any other store would be. You can’t just drive up to the back door and drop your stuff off. Everything has to come through security, so our challenges are considerable in terms of wrangling the place,” says MacKay, who credits manager Lisa Olie, there since the 2009 opening, for making the store so successful. Working at Liquid Assets requires knowledge of the products and their environment, so there’s a tourism element involved as much as there is retail.
Back at the distillery, Guevremont and MacKay have decided that they need to grow and bought the building next door to expand rum storage. And, at the time of writing, they’re awaiting delivery of a still from Germany. Going forward, they’ll be able to produce and store more rum, and age it longer. “We’re calling this our RSP, our rum savings program,” says Guevremont, “Obviously, rum creates value the longer you keep it.”
A GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT
Guevremont and MacKay love what they do and are happy the local craft spirit and beverage industries have grown. And they support it in ways beyond ringing the bell for local producers at Liquid Assets. This year their brainchild, Spirited Away in Lunenburg: The Nova Scotia Craft Spirits Festival, celebrated its fifth year. “Because Lunenburg is the size it is, Spirited Away will always be a tiny, amusing, perfect little festival. We do these really nifty things in these very intense couple of days, and it seems to have captured folks’ imaginations,” says MacKay. “Every year, we say we’re never going to do it again because it’s so much work, but there’s nothing like it anywhere, and so we are very pleased with its development.”
Alongside all of these things, the pair is still dedicated to creating high-quality spirits, and loving the discovery side of their craft. Letting the cat out of the bag, Guevremont shares that they’ve been making whiskey for a couple of years, and will release their first batch in a year or so more (to be called whiskey, the spirit has to be barrel-aged for at least three). “We’re quite enjoying tasting it along the way as it gets more mature.”
MacKay also enjoys her gin adventures. “We keep accidentally doing interesting things with our gin, like the Gin Noire series we came out with, which was gin with blackberries and black currants,” she says. “Gin has a lot more amusement to it than many of the more standard things—our vodka’s lovely, but it is an apple vodka, and it will remain that taste because that’s the way it’s designed. And that’s fine and delicious, and I love it, but I’m having a lot of fun with our gin.”
Guevremont laments that he still has so much to learn, and wishes that they’d started their business earlier, so he could have done more already. The truth is, though, their timing was exactly right, and the path they chose led them to where they are today. Ironworks’ success has paved the way for countless others—not just those making booze—to dream big and create their own success.