Cole Miller took a typically teenaged desire to score a little illicit booze, and has turned what seemed to be immature escapades into a burgeoning craft alcohol business, that is set to put Napanee back on the spirits map.
Miller, who is still just in his 20s, has parlayed his passion for spirits, combined it with a prodigious work ethic and a seemingly limitless capacity to learn and store pertinent information, and excellent training into Twelve Barrels Canadian Whiskey – a blended whiskey which has already secured spots on LCBO shelves. The enthusiastic entrepreneur also foresees it as the cornerstone to a project that may bring back a full-fledged distillery to the Greater Napanee area.
“Everybody wants to be the life of the party. I wanted to be the one providing good times and lubrication for my friends, so I decided to investigate making my own. After deciding to do the next decision was how to do it: how do I make booze as cheaply and effectively as possible. So I went online and learned about a kind of ‘prison style’ moonshine. I went to Wal Mart and there were all the ingredients I needed – standard sugar, standard baking yeast and any juice that I wanted. It was easy; mix the ingredients together and you got wine in about a week, and depending on how much sugar, you could get between eight and 14 per cent alcohol. Then I started playing around with beer, but discovered I wasn’t really good at it,” Miller said, adding that he took a spoiled batch, bought a rudimentary still and created his first samples of something approaching whiskey.
“Then I started caring more and more about how I could make the product actually good, and something that people would really enjoy and more importantly, pay a premium for. I did a lot of research and started to really get a handle on what was going on within the whiskey industry and what consumers were looking for. I also did a lot of research on the chemical side of it and various distilling techniques to try and find out how to make different kinds of whiskey. Once I got a really good understanding of times and temperatures, the different effects of the ingredients and so on, I decided to get off the computer and phone and out of the basement and learn how the big boys do it on a larger scale.”
That led Miller to the United Kingdom, where he acquired both formal and a lot of informal training through conversations, observations and lots of experimentations.
“I worked in the industry over there for a little while and learned about grilling the grain, how do you chop it and how that affects the sugar content, which in turn effects the level of alcohol and the flavours. I learned all that, all the way through the process to aging and what type of barrels and weather and temperature’s impact on it while it’s being aged.”
Wanting to get into the business as soon as possible, Miller realized that it was nearly impossible to generate the capital required to actually build, equip and maintain a distillery, so he chose become what he terms a “blender and marketer of whiskey.”
The recipe for Twelve barrels took quite some time to achieve and it comes from the blending of other whiskeys into a flavour that is unique and captivating for the discriminating whiskey aficionado.
“I source whiskey from a few different distilleries. This whiskey has to be aged in oak barrels of course, which is very time consuming and expensive. The Canadian whiskies that we put into our blend have to be aged at least three years. So what happens is distilleries in places like Canada, Scotland and the U.S. make more whiskey than they need because they’re projecting their sales at least three years in advance. So the stuff they make on May 8, 2017 you can’t call a Canadian aged whiskey until May 8, 2020. These guys always make more than their projected sales, just in case there is an uptick in demand for some reason,” he explained.
“What that means is when 2020 rolls around, there’s going to be some leftover whiskey and these distilleries are willing to sell off that extra capacity. So that’s where we come in because I am able to buy that extra capacity of aged stock already there and use it to create my own recipes. This is just like Johnnie Walker. There is no Johnnie Walker distillery. It is a blended scotch and the buy from multiple distilleries and then just blend the product.”
The downside to this process is that there is a chance that you might not have enough of the whiskeys you need to make your blend. The upside is that you’re able to get your product to market quickly and a lot cheaper than if you had your own facility – plus, for a start-up like Twelve Barrels, you don’t have to wait three years for it to age in a storage facility that is generating zero revenue.
“So the plan is to bring a distillery back into Napanee eventually. Once the brand has been validated and it’s been shown that the consumers want it, and there’s some cash flow, we will proceed,” Miller said.
Having one’s own facility will mean Twelve Barrels can develop different blends and recipes and have different batch sizes. He would still blend his whiskey (currently being done at Kinsip House of Fine Spirits in Prince Edward County) but also be able to create high-end products that could be priced at a higher scale.
From Twelve Barrels’ own website here are the official ‘tasting notes’ from a reviewer for the anchor blend, for those wanting to know what they will soon be sipping.
“Strong caramel notes on the first nose develop hints of sweet citrus peel. The palate shows vanilla, butterscotch, peppery rye and a lively pithiness like grapefruit peel. Twelve Barrels is a pleasing session sipper and mixes well with ginger ale and Coke … Ends with a longish finish of refreshing peppery pith.”
The whiskey is aged in oak barrels from the United States which previously held bourbon. The bourbon flavour resides in the oak and gives the whiskey it’s tinges of vanilla, caramel and overall sweetness.
Right now, the LCBO is Miller’s primary customer.
“We sell through them so ultimately they are our customers. The consumer is at the end of the process and they are consuming the product and that’s who we pitch all our advertising and marketing to. The biggest challenge at the outset was just getting our products on their shelves. From start to finish with the LCBO it took a year and a half. It involved a lot of trials and tribulations and rejections … and a lot of waiting,” he said.
“Over the coming months, as we get the business going and have a big launch and that sort of thing, brand awareness is going to be another challenge; creating that word of mouth and getting the name out there. We have certain sales targets in order to be able to stay on the shelves at the LCBO. So there is a very careful tension that we have to navigate between trying to sell as much whiskey as soon as possible to hit those targets but also making sure that we’re not taking advantage of the customer and work to build long-term loyalty so that they will come back for seconds and thirds.”
The brand Twelve Barrels is based on a prominent family that once owned a distillery in Napanee – the Meaghers.
John Meagher made whiskey from wheat, as a way of creating an additional source of revenue from his grist mill operation. He also used some of the wheat to make baked goods for his family bakery, located in downtown Napanee.
At some point early in his whiskey making business, he switched from wheat to rye – and created a flavourful blend that became popular in the region in the years leading up to Confederation in 1867. Around that time, new taxes were imposed, pricing his whiskey out of the market for most of Meagher’s rural farm folk, so he closed the distillery.
John Meagher had a large number of children. His youngest, George, became a noted amateur athlete, primarily on ice skates. He was a champion figure skater, and played in some of the earliest recorded pro hockey games in Canada. He also used to be a barrel jumper, back when that sport was exceedingly popular with spectators back in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“He was the first person to really introduce hockey to Europe and he has this amazing story and is really kind of a forgotten part of Canadiana. And it was reported to have jumped 12 whiskey barrels, which was amazing. So for my branding I wanted to bring together the story of this father in son into something really compelling, and something that really spoke to the history of this region and of the country,” Miller said.
“With whiskey brands, and alcohol brands in general, there’s very strong emotional connections that people have to their favourite brands. And that story of George following his dreams and passions and being aspirational fitted with the brand I wanted to create. And then we based our flavour profile and tasting notes and recipe on something that his dad John may have used, based on the information we had about the times. We didn’t really know, but we believe Twelve Barrels is very much what the whiskey tasted like back then in Napanee. So George is the inspiration for the character jumping on the label and John is the inspiration for the blend itself.”
For more information, visit www.twelvebarrels.com.