Grant “Stevely” Stevely

Distiller, Businessman, Skier & Volunteer Firefighter

Grant Stevely hard at "work"
Grant Stevely hard at “work”

Grant, or Stevely as he is more commonly known, is the proprietor and distiller of Canada’s newest distillery, The Dubh Glas Distillery (@TheDubhGlasD).   This is a craft distillery located in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia in the heart of the Okanagan valley wine region.  To learn more about the distillery see our distillery page here.

Stevely’s career included working for a major international destination Ski and Snowboard resort for eighteen years.  Stevely worked hard to make the resort a success and was responsible for managing many different areas at the resort including; Security, a Volunteer Fire Department, Emergency Response Team and the Sign & Graphics department.  Stevely also worked with the YMCA during his summer months teaching leadership programs to youth through multi-day remote wilderness hiking and paddling trips including a two month paddling trip along the MacKenzie river from Ft. Simpson across the Arctic circle to Inuvik.

Stevely’s love of single malt whisky is something that has grown over time, which culminated in Stevely hosting whisky tastings corporately, privately and at the Resort where he worked.  He has increased his knowledge and experience by travelling to Scotland and visiting multiple distillers from the west coast of Canada to the popular distilling regions in Scotland.  Meeting and discussing distilling with craft distillers across Canada, attending whisky events, and his love of whisky brought him to experiment in small batches at home.  He has travelled to the United States to attend workshops on both distilling and distillery operations.

Stevely
Stevely

Stevely’s passion, education, experience and whisky appreciation gives him a distinct advantage in running a craft distillery. His work ethic is extremely strong as demonstrated by the time and dedication to the Resort he contributed to the success of.  His values of quality and attention to detail are fundamental to his business being successful.

Hi Stevely, thanks so much for granting me this interview especially when you are so busy, it’s very much appreciated.

You’ve made quite a leap of faith in deciding to start a distillery what prompted this?

I worked many years at my previous employer, however found that I was really wanting to put that work ethic to work for me and invest in myself. I began researching business opportunities that I would enjoy. I had a number of requirements that included; an opportunity for growth, a business that I would enjoy into retirement, something that I was passionate about and was also social. It was finally suggested to me by a couple of close friends, after a couple of drams, that I should start a distillery. I didn’t take the suggestion seriously right away; perhaps because of the drams we had that night. Being a curious guy by nature, I did however begin to research the costs involved. After getting some basic costs of equipment and operations, I began to realize that this could be possible and after a distilling class in Arizona I was sold; it fit.  Owning and operating a distillery was everything that I was looking for in a business.

What have you found the biggest challenge to be so far?

There are many challenges with a business like this, financing likely being the largest challenge so far. Even at a small scale, the capital expenditures required of starting a distillery from the ground up are quite large. Not to mention the capital required in producing a product that won’t be ready for a number of years.

What’s a typical day like at the moment?

That’s a tough question, as it seems no two days are typical at the moment. This week has included many construction related decisions (paint, lighting, doors, purchasing), bottle selection and branding for our complimentary spirit products that aren’t whisky related, social media monitoring, sourcing of related distillation equipment, research for retail products that complement the business, working with the electrical provider for our power requirements, cost analysis, entertaining visitors looking for a sneak peek at the progress and of course interviews in sharing my story.  Of course there is also a lot of paper pushing that is involved with a project like this.

What’s your biggest whisky highlight so far?

There have been many and they generally include meeting and discussing my distillery adventure with whisky celebrities like Jim Murray, John Hall and most recently Richard Patterson. The fact that these whisky ambassadors are willing to take the time to speak with me in depth is really encouraging and appreciated. It makes me excited about the passion they have for the industry as a whole.

Drawing of the finished article
Drawing of the finished article

What’s your vision for the distillery?

My vision for the distillery is a story, and whether you come to visit the distillery or are enjoying the spirits at home with friends or family, I want you to be part of the story. I want to build not only a whisky distillery, I want to build a uniquely Canadian whisky distillery that has its own unique identity. I want to see the distillery grow organically through making great spirits with a focus on whisky. I want to build a distillery from the ground up, not just another distillery in a rented space or on a side street – a place that people will talk about and want to visit, where the landscaping, scenery and the community all contribute to a great story behind the spirits they enjoy….Small distillery, big plans!

Who, in the industry, has inspired you the most?

There are so many, the creativeness of John Glaser, the passion for Canadian Whisky in Davin De Kergommeaux, the precision of Jim Swan and what he’s done with the distilleries he’s worked with, perhaps Chip Tate on starting small or who could forget Charlie MacLean who has written great books on whisky. There are many. It’s a difficult question indeed.

If I had to pick one, I would have to say John Hall of Forty Creek stands out the most. John has offered me some great motivation. Not only has he inspired me; he has helped raise awareness of the entire Canadian whisky industry. I have been to a couple of his tastings over the years and when he speaks or offers samples to customers, he tells his story with such passion, energy and appreciation every single time. It’s like he is telling his story for the very first time. John has always been helpful and encouraging of my project from its inception and I’m very appreciative of that.

At the Canadian Whisky Awards last year, John asked me if I would like to sit with him during dinner. There I was sitting with a Canadian distillery celebrity. I was so excited I could barely sit still. It was such a privilege to talk whisky with such a knowledge industry professional. I will always remember when I introduced myself to others at the table as someone trying to build a distillery; he stopped and corrected me stating that I was indeed building a distillery, not trying.

I hope that in twenty years I am just as passionate, dedicated and successful with my brand as John Hall is today.

In five years’ time, where do you see both yourself and the distillery?

In five years, I would hope that the distillery is recognized for making great quality spirits first and foremost. “Pappy” Van Winkle had a great philosophy on the Bourbon business that resonates with me. I want a similar philosophy to guide the distillery and that is, “to make fine spirits at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine spirits”. I hope that at the five year anniversary that we are able to sample a quality single-malt whisky that people will seek out and want to try.

As for myself, I hope that I am able to enjoy and share a great whisky that I had a small part in making. I say small because there will be so many people that will have assisted me in my journey.

You work with Mike Nicolson as a consultant on this project, how much of an influence has this had on both you and the distillery?

It would be difficult to find a more knowledgeable, insightful and experienced whisky professional than Mike Nicolson. His skillful advice has added greatly to our vision of a new distillery, helping us clarify our visualization from the guest experience, fermentation, distillation and maturation all the way through to our future matured whisky.  Although we have only worked together on paper and discussion so far, it has been very valuable. He has made me think and closely evaluate where I want to go on this adventure.

After spending some time with Mike at the future distillery site, he said to me, “I think you are trying to make the world’s best whisky and that might not be possible”.  I told him I didn’t know if that would happen, however I certainly wanted to try.

How much of an influence will your location have on the whisky?

A great question and one that I don’t think can be clearly answered just yet.  I believe however that our hot summer and mild winters here in the Okanagan Valley will lend itself to a slightly accelerated maturation that could be reflective of the success found in warmer climate matured whisky from Amrut in India or King Car in Taiwan.  I think it’s going to play a big role, especially the abundance of used wine barrels that I have access to. Whisky in the heart of Canadian Wine Country has its advantages.

Are there any plans for a peated whisky?

As of yet there is not a plan for a peated whisky as we are bound by a special Craft Distillery license that requires us to use only British Columbia grown barley.  Currently there is no peated barley available which is unfortunate, as I love peated whiskies. Rules may change or we may get creative in the future in producing our own peated malt.

What advice would you give to others out there who may be toying with the idea of opening a distillery?

I always have said to myself that I would try or do as many things as I was capable of. I didn’t want to grow old thinking that I could have tried something like building a distillery. If you are thinking about it, do the research, make the plan and if everything is still appealing then take the leap. Don’t look back and say, “I could have”. Be prepared for the challenges (there are many) that are ahead.

When did your own personal whisky journey start?

I’m not sure I could pinpoint the exact point my whisky journey started. There was no sudden realization. It grew from drinking a casual dram with friends to a rich appreciation for the complexities and work that goes in to every whisky. It went from a ‘bottle of Scotch’ at the store to exploring the nuances of how the whisky was made and where it came from.

What’s your personal favourite whisky?

I don’t think I have a favorite as I truly appreciate a variety and always enjoy the opportunity to try something new.  Opening a single cask bottling from a world distillery or the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is always exciting.

What was growing up in Canada like?

I have had the opportunity to travel abroad from Scotland to Myanmar and within the remote regions of Canada as well.  This has allowed me to truly appreciate the opportunities and freedom that I have enjoyed growing up in such a rich and diverse country.

Tell me a little about your Scottish heritage?

The earliest reference I have goes back to that of James Stevely, son of William Stevely and Mary Reid Logan, who were born in Stevenston, Ayrshire, in 1873.  My Grandfather’s father came by ship from the UK aboard the Corinthian in June 1906. With a couple of address’ given to me by my grandfather (who has since passed away) in Glasgow, I hope to more research on a future visit, as my heritage knowledge is a little lacking.

You’re self-financing this venture with the use of presales, however you are twisting the norm slightly in that you are selling part casks, what was the reasoning behind this?

This is something I get excited about sharing. It really allows someone to be part of Canadian distilling history in a rare and exclusive opportunity

As with any start-up business, financing is always a challenge. One way that some distilleries help reduce start-up costs is by selling full casks of whisky.  I wanted to include as many people in the project as possible, that meant the price had to be reasonable and I really wanted to share the success of the journey with others.  Selling a full barrel of whisky was out of reach for many; especially those who didn’t want to drink or take possession of that much whisky plus the distillery had no vested interest in the barrel once it was filled.  I then came up with the idea of selling just half of a small barrel and the other half would belong to the distillery. It really was a win-win for both the distillery and the cask owner.

These pre-sales also allow the cask owner to have three options; bottling after initial maturation (3-3.5yrs), extended maturation or returning the product back to the distillery for sale and a share of the profit in those bottles. I also guarantee forty-four bottles out of the cask unless of course the evaporation reduces it to below that amount.

With the purchase of the half cask, the owner will have their name and city stamped on the cask, which will be prominently displayed in the maturation warehouse for other visitors to see during tours of the distillery.  The cask owners will also receive an annual birthday card (cask picture included) with a wee annual sample of the product from their cask.  They will also have options of their choice of a Canadian wine finish cask and will include basic custom labeling.  This personal touch will help provide a sense of ownership in the distillery and give them a few options to share in the success.  (This is a very interesting take on this).

You will be releasing a gin as well as fruit liqueurs (once in production, likely June), why did you decide to branch out into this also?

Again, financing is always a challenge.  Like many small distilleries starting out, we had to find a creative way of helping finance our project while our initial whisky stock is aging.  Gin seemed like an obvious choice due to the creativity and complexity associated with this spirit.  Our gin will be barley based like our whisky.  It’s a great extension to a product that we will already be producing at a base level and allows us to be creative like whisky.

Our fruit liqueurs will be made with locally produced fruit and available only seasonally at the distillery location.  We made the decision to produce these spirits from culled fruit that would otherwise end up in a landfill due to aesthetic reasons (irregular shape, too small) – perfectly good fruit that is not marketable. It’s a great value added product for us.

When you’re not hard at work, what do you do for fun?

Other than drink whisky?  I enjoy the outdoors when I have the opportunity. During the winter, I’m an avid skier and after so many years working at a resort in Banff, I am always drawn to the calling of the mountains on the big snow days. I enjoy hiking, paddling and spending time in the outdoors. Although with the distillery project being at such a busy stage lately, those recreational activities seemed to be a little minimized.

That concludes our interview, thank you so much, I’ll look forward to watching the distillery grow, and hopefully you can update us along the way.   

Thank-you Kirsty, for the opportunity to share a little bit of my planned voyage in building Canada’s newest Craft Distillery.  We are almost ready to leave port! Keep up the great work on Whisky Corner and I look forward to seeing updates on your journey as well.

To learn more about the Distillery read our info page here

Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)

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