If, as many have predicted, the pandemic gives way to a modern version of the Roaring ’20s, Arnie Lepp and his self-described “dream team,” are set to be on the forefront of fuelling the party.
Finishing touches are being put on Lepp’s new Spirit in Niagara Small Batch Distillery. Located on his Lakeshore Road property, the new structure built in the style of an 1800s era Queenston manor house is set back from the road amidst Lepp’s peach orchards.
When its doors are thrown open, visitors will be greeted by a wide open retail space and invited to step up to the tasting bar. There, they can sample at least seven different spirits all distilled from fruit grown by A.J. Lepp family orchards, an operation now in its fourth generation, as well as other farms in Niagara.
Lepp explains that the idea behind opening the distillery is to cut down on the 10 per cent of Niagara tender fruit that is wasted every year.
Lepp and his family tend to more than 200 acres of peaches, nectarines, pears, plums, apricots, cherries, seedless grapes and vinifera grapes. They are also the owners of the largest single family tender fruit shipping company in Ontario, and so connected to farmers across the region to buy their fallen fruit.
“It’s over-ripe, bruised fruit, thousands of tonnes,” Lepp says. “There’s nothing wrong with it, It’s just not retail sellable. And there’s a lot of it.”
“It’s really difficult to deal with,” Lepp adds about the waste. “It doesn’t go in the orchards. Most of it gets dumped in open places, places where it probably shouldn’t be dumped.”
Andrew Cieszkowski, director of sales and marketing and part of Lepp’s “dream team,” says “having grown up in the tender fruit business, Arnie is absolutely passionate about reducing the amount of waste. The idea to help out local farmers by reducing the amount of product that is wasted is really the impetus behind starting the distillery.”
The other members of the Spirit in Niagara team include neophyte Kacey Lang, a recent graduate of the Niagara College distillery program. She is responsible for marketing and online sales. Industry veteran Joshua Beach, who some may remember as the man who helped get the Wayne Gretzky Distillery off the ground, rounds out the team as master distiller and blender.
Lang is excited to bring a fresh set of eyes to the business.
“In the last few years we’ve seen a lot more small craft distilleries come into the market,” she enthuses. “We’ve seen the wine boom, we’ve seen the beer boom, now is the time to really get into distilling. Cocktail culture has really exploded, coming back into the mainstream. And I think people want to buy a product that is sustainable, using fresh local ingredients.”
For Lang, hired by Lepp in April, being able to immerse herself in the distillery business from the ground up is a unique opportunity.
“I literally left class to go to the job interview,” she tells The Local. “A lot of people were trying to find jobs in the industry everywhere, and COVID made it hard. So it’s really cool to find a job in an area where I’m already living.”
Besides launching Gretzky’s distillery in 2016, Beach, who holds a master’s degree in distilling, started an operation called Odd Society Spirits in Vancouver. He also began the whiskey program at Collingwood’s Georgian Bay Spirit Company.
“I wanted to come back to the Niagara region,” Beach says. “My wife’s from here. Arnie has a great spot here, and I’ve got the opportunity to work with some excellent fruit, and also use grains. It’s great to be back.”
Lepp, who admits he himself is not a distiller, has given Beach total creative control over production.
“With the fruit, you get what you get,” Beach explains. “When you take that in, then what you produce with that, that’s the creative aspect. We’ve started with eau de vies (distilled beverage made from fruit other than grapes), and we’re branching out to a gin and a vodka. Arnie and I both love whiskey, so we’re going to do a bourbon style and a rye and a few other things as well.”
The production facility sits in a glass-walled area behind the event space/cocktail bar. Beach has been able to apply his information technology background from his pre-distilling days to automate much of the process. He points to what he calls his workhorse, the continuous column that reaches up to the second level of the structure where it is visible from inside a 1,600 square foot special event/meeting room, which also overlooks the orchard. Fermentation tanks and a press are situated in the packing area of the large, open warehouse space.
The retail space is currently stocked with three varieties of eau de vie: Juicy Peach, Sun Ripened Yellow Plum and Sweet Pear. Each bears the distinctive Spirit In Niagara label, which Lepp says was designed with a purpose.
“I wanted to recreate the ’20s,” he explains. “We’re in the ’20s, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that went on 100 years ago. We wanted to bring that whole thing forward 100 years and pass it off as something new. It’s an old-style label with an innovative, new perspective.”
This reporter was invited to step up to the tasting bar, which is framed with salvaged beams from an old barn recently dismantled on the property. Beach poured a shot of Juicy Peach, a perfectly colourless liquid. It’s fragrant and subtly sweet, but not overly so upon sipping. It rolls over the tongue with a satiny feel, and leaves a dry, fruity aftertaste. It would be perfect on ice, or as the Spirit in Niagara website suggests, in a peach tea cocktail.
Still to come are Juiced Up Gin and Vodka and a Pleasure Me Plumincello. Beach adds that they are currently aging their Canadian Brrrbon (sic), barrels of which will line that upstairs event/meeting room.
The name of the business, by the way, was partly chosen for its natural acronym. Spirit of Niagara, of course, shortens to “sin”, or “SiN” as Lepp likes to use. The word makes sense in light of Lepp’s theme of how sinful it is to waste good fruit.
As well, the distribution of alcohol was prohibited in Canada during the First World War, and that lasted until the early ’20s. In the U.S., prohibition ran from 1920 to 1933. So it was a sin, so to say, to sell alcohol during those times.
So the acronym fits in with Lepp’s fascination with the Roaring ’20s, and if prohibition does by chance show up once again, he jokes that he has a 1926 Ford Model T on the premises to do a bit of rum-running. In all seriousness, he actually does have the car.
Taking the legal route for now, Cieszkowski is in early talks aimed at getting Spirit in Niagara products into LCBO stores. And he has also approached local restaurants to encourage them to add the company’s product line to their drinks lists.
For now, the fruits of the dream team’s labours can be ordered via their website, spiritinniagara.com. Just don’t expect flappers to deliver your order to you.